Celebration of Life vs Funeral - Spiritual But Not Religious

Celebration of Life vs Funeral - Spiritual But Not Religious

As of 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that three in 10 adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated. This growing demographic implies that many people may not find traditional funeral services aligned with their beliefs. Fortunately, families today also have many options for end-of-life ceremonies, unrestricted by traditional religious practices. This newfound freedom allows them to create personalized and meaningful ceremonies.

However, the abundance of options can sometimes become overwhelming during an already stressful time of grief and loss. And although there's no right or wrong type of service, it comes down to the last wishes of the deceased and the emotional needs of the guests. So whether you are part of a grieving family or considering how you'd like things done for you after you cross over, I hope to help.

First, we'll understand the differences between the activities of a traditional funeral order of service and a celebration of life. From there, we'll take a closer look at some incredible celebration of life stories from people who honored their loved ones based on the deceased's unique personality and spiritual needs and wants.

A traditional funeral service stems from Christianity, and there's a very predictable funeral order of service:

1. There is a viewing period of the body, also called a wake (here's some interesting Irish history on that!)

2. The funeral, which is typically held at a funeral home, church, or gravesite

3. A respectful automobile procession to the gravesite

4. The committal service, which is the burial of the body or cremated remains

5. Reception for close friends and family members

This is what most people expect when they go to a funeral. People expect a similar process if the event is called a memorial but without the casketed remains.

Celebration of life events are something entirely different. They are much lighter and typically more informal events. They may be held instead of, or in addition to, a more traditional service. Since there's no particular structure to a celebration of life, you can do anything that feels like the best way to honor your loved one. I asked my community if they had any stories they could share, and they did not disappoint!

Here are some beautiful examples of Celebrations of Life:

Message in a Bottle

Rylee from State College, PA, shared that when her boyfriend's grandmother passed away, they knew they had to do something really special to help her symbolically and literally continue her love of traveling the world. Rylee and her boyfriend took a trip along with friends and family coming from CA, FL, and beyond to North Fork, ID, after his grandmother had lost her battle with dementia. Together they wrote 6 or so notes explaining who she was and her love for exploring the world. After the gathering, they each took a note and some of her ashes home to release "messages in a bottle" around each coast so she could continue her exploration! Since then, they've received phone calls from people who have found her bottles, read her message, and sent her back on her way.

Philadelphia Eagles

Chrissy from Tega Cay, SC, shared that after the passing of her brother in June 2022, they chose not to have a funeral but a celebration. Her whole family is from the Philadelphia area, and her brother was a big Eagles fan. To honor him and celebrate his life, they all wore Philadelphia Eagles attire and ate cheesesteaks and Philly pretzels while they sat around with friends to share pictures and memories.

​The Dolphins and the Bees

Alexandria from Maui, HI, shared that when her grandfather passed away, she paddled a kayak out to spread his ashes and flowers in the ocean with her dad to celebrate his life. As they were paddling out that day, she got stung by a bee. Several years later, her grandma passed away, and they did a similar celebration of life for her out on the water. Dolphins surrounded them while they were spreading the ashes, and a bee landed on her leg. Although she wasn't stung at that time, it was a strange and cool coincidence. Unsurprisingly, she feels that being on the water to celebrate the life of a loved one is such a magical experience, and I would have to agree!

Now She Flies With The Butterflies

Miss El from Sacramento, CA, shared that at the end of her life, her mother knew she was passing and had made it known she didn't want anyone sad or crying. They wouldn't be there to read bible verses; they would celebrate her life. She asked that when they gathered, they all wear purple or tie-dye colors (her Mama was a hippie at heart!) and that her healing circle each pick 2 songs to be played. Miss El, as her daughter, couldn't stick to just two and instead chose 27 songs that she remembered her mother playing on weekend mornings while cleaning. When the celebration of life service finally came, it was beautiful. They had butterfly-shaped floral arrangements and tables dressed with balloons and butterflies. And to top it off, they had a memorial table with all her mother's favorite things (pictures, cookbook, signs, and her famous pumpkin cookie recipe). They spoke good memories of her, sang her happy birthday, and even had a last-call drink with her with the ashes present. And if this doesn't already sound special enough, they did a butterfly release to close the celebration. Every guest was given a butterfly in a triangle box with the words 'Now she flies with the butterflies.' They released them while Miss El read the poem 'I'm Free.' Miss El shared that butterflies have a new meaning now when she sees them. To her, she sees her mom set free of her pain and on her spiritual journey home.

All About Dad

Amy from upstate New York shared that when her father passed, it was really important for her to do things exactly how he would have wanted had he still been with them. He loved all things New York. His favorite colors were Green and Black, and he loved New York food staples like bison chip dip & Sahlen hot dogs. So when it came time for his funeral, Amy rented out a hall and had his favorite colors everywhere and ordered his favorite food, including wings double buffalo, medium with blue cheese, and pizza from his favorite pizzeria (even though it was her least favorite pizza of all the options in the area!). It didn't matter what she or anyone else wanted; it was all about Walter (her dad). During the celebration, she played all his favorite music, including Kenny G and R&B artists like the Commodores and The Manhattans. Together they celebrated his life and honored who he was through these expressions of his life.

The inspiring stories of celebration of life events shared here exemplify the power of creativity and love in commemorating lives in extraordinary ways.

A few other celebration of life ideas you can take from:

1. A dinner party highlighting the individual's favorite food where each person can share a story of the deceased

2. An outdoor gathering of people with the individual's favorite genre of live music 

3. An open mic night where each person can share a story of the deceased or share art or the genre of music that best honors the life of the person

4. Bringing everyone together to help plant a garden in the deceased's name with food and drink to share afterward

As you can see, with these celebrations of life stories and ideas, you can create something special to reflect the interests and personality characteristics of the deceased. And if you're reading this as someone interested in adding final requests to your family, you really have an opportunity to get creative with something that you feel best celebrates you.

So we understand the difference between a celebration of life and a funeral, but why choose one over the other? The truth is, you don't have to. 

In exploring these celebrations, we offer profound insights and inspiration. In my blog, I delve into stories and ideas that capture the uniqueness of each life lived. As you navigate through the narratives in there, you'll discover how these celebrations become a special reflection of the interests and personality characteristics of those who have passed on.

You can use your creativity to create the perfect memorial event. Here are two examples:

Just because it has yet to be done doesn't mean you can't do it!

Tom from San Antonio (but currently resides in Phoenix) shares that when his father-in-law passed many years ago, he was among the first to use a laptop to share a PowerPoint of pictures full of good days, smiles, and family time. So although it was in the style of a more traditional funeral, the slideshow was a celebration! He felt that although there was weeping and mourning, the great pictures in the slideshow brought more joy to the funeral, and it changed the typical dynamic.

Luau Funeral

Melissa from North Carolina is a funeral director with years of experience who has seen that people have very different ways of approaching memorial services and has witnessed a few surprising funerals. One in particular that stands out was where the bereaved family chose to have a luau celebration during the funeral reception with their beloved family member's body in the other room for viewing.

Two things to consider when planning a funeral, celebration of life, or hybrid event:

1. Limitations set forth by the funeral director: depending on just how creative you end up being, there may be some limitations set forth by the funeral director and the home, so be sure to check with them on the funeral service options first before announcing your plans 

2. Personal and social expectations: while it can be hard to make everyone happy, it's good to consider that people may have very different emotional needs and expectations after experiencing a common loss. If you're responsible for the planning process, when choosing what to include, like a death doula as needed, please consider that viewing the individual's physical remains can be instrumental in fully acknowledging the loss. Even if this is part of the process that you don't want to participate in, it may be very important for the healing of others around you.

As we honor the memories of our loved ones, let us embrace the opportunity to celebrate their lives with joy and creativity. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to memorialize someone as long as final requests are honored and the spiritual and emotional needs of those attending are at least considered. Ultimately, the most important aspect is to create a meaningful and authentic tribute that resonates with the essence of the departed.

In this journey of commemorating unique lives, Soul Spheres offers a wellspring of inspiration and ideas. To explore a multitude of possibilities for creating a meaningful and authentic tribute that resonates with the essence of the departed, delve into the offerings here. Your exploration might just uncover the perfect inspiration for a celebration that beautifully reflects the spirit of your loved one.

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