The scent of flowers, the sound of laughter, the salt of tears, the feeling of love, and the comfort of memories—a celebration of life service will likely evoke some, if not all, of these senses. What is a celebration of life service? A celebration of life service is an end-of-life ceremony where people gather to celebrate the unique life of a loved one who has passed away. Such a service is the catalyst in the novel Every Summer After when the death of Sue Florek draws our protagonist back to her youthful stomping grounds to celebrate the end of Sue’s life and reconnect with lost love.

Sue’s end-of-life celebration is a little unusual, though, in that she planned the event down to every last detail - including preparing and freezing the meals to be served at the celebration, coordinating with vendors for tableware and dishes, every detail - to save her two sons from the burden of having to undertake that planning while also mourning the loss of their mother.

This begs the question: what are your thoughts on planning a celebration of life service for yourself? To get some insight from people deeply involved with celebration of life planning, we asked three funeral industry experts for their thoughts on the topic. We interviewed Troy Centazzo, founder of Opal Cremation, Elaine Valdez, founder of Funeral Boss, and Anthony Kaniuk, Director of Industry Relations at the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

Would you consider coordinating your own Celebration of Life?

Troy Centazzo: “Well, I think I’d rather help plan it in advance rather than coordinate it in real-time. (laughs) Sure, preplanning would be great for a couple of reasons. First, it certainly takes so much stress and burden off families when arrangements are made in advance than when they need to happen, let’s say, really soon. That would be important to me.”

“Also, planning your own life celebration provides a unique opportunity to think about what’s important to you and reflect on your relationships with loved ones and friends. Planning your own celebration of life is a way to add things that are very personal and special to the event – and share them with loved ones. I’ve already prearranged my funeral services but still need to add some of those special details – sooner rather than later!”

Elaine Valdez: “I in a way, think I have helped coordinate mine already. I have a folder with all the important documents my family would need, and I have a folder with all of my wishes written down from the types of flowers, photos, and music to funny specifics like NO open mic eulogies.”

What would your Celebration of Life look like?

Troy Centazzo: “Now that people are taking so much more control over personalizing memorial services, it’s been incredible to see the opportunities to celebrate a life explode to accommodate consumers’ evolving expectations. I’ve lived on both coasts my entire life – so far, anyway – and I think it’s so cool when a big group of family and friends rent a boat to hold a celebration of life party combined with scattering their cremated remains. That would be great. And maybe someone could sprinkle some of my cremated remains next to a memorial tree, which I’ve learned of recently. I couldn’t think of a better celebration than that.”

Elaine Valdez: “I want tons of flowers everywhere, white roses, hydrangeas, and peonies (all these will be covered). I don't want anyone attending the celebration to send flowers. I would prefer they donate to a meaningful organization in my name. There is going to be great music playing, great pictures everywhere. I don't want tears. I want laughs from everyone. At the end, I want everyone to pull from all the flowers on display and make their own bouquet to go.”

Anthony Kaniuk: “I'd like it to look like a three-ring circus. The First Ring is where my family would gather and talk about what I meant to them and what they have learned from me that inspired them. The Second Ring would be where my friends and co-works could talk about the good and bad times we experienced together. The Third and Final Ring would be for the performance of songs along with quotes and affirmations that have either inspired me or touched my heart or meant something to me during different periods of my life.”

What do you think it takes to host a meaningful Celebration of Life?

Troy Centazzo: “Whether the memorial service takes place in a funeral home, church, cemetery, or public park, the most meaningful ones all have the same things in common, in my experience. They are really personalized to remember the deceased as an individual. They provide an event to celebrate a ‘unique life well lived’ that also allows people to grieve. They are never standard, one-size-fits-all. Never.”

Anthony Kaniuk: “When I saw this question, I couldn't help but think of the great speech by Jimmy Valvano from 1993. I think it takes three things:

  1. Laughter
  2. Think and spend time in thought with loved ones
  3. Have your emotion moved to tears (happy or sad) during the celebration

To me, that's a "Celebration of Life.”

What is the most memorable Celebration of Life you have ever attended?

Troy Centazzo: “I’m not sure what the most memorable celebration of life I’ve attended is, but I’ve been to a few that I’ll never forget. And they were all unique in their own way. I know I laughed a lot and cried a lot and left knowing the person who passed so much more than I ever expected.”

Elaine Valdez: “My mother's lifelong best friend passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. As she was passing, she called me and asked me to come over so she could tell me all of her wishes. I remember sitting with her in tears writing down every detail she wanted. She told me not to say anything until her family made the arrangements. She passed, and I shared all the details. Her family went along with every wish. She had a beautiful memorial on the beach in Malibu with her urn present. Hundreds attended and everyone wore white.”

Anthony Kaniuk: “My own oldest sister's celebration of life. She passed at the age of 42 from ovarian cancer. Working in the funeral profession, you automatically become the family expert. My sister knew what I did for a living and asked me to bring one of the magazines I worked on because she wanted to pick out her own urn. She wanted it to reflect her love of life. It was one of the most difficult, emotional days she and I shared during her final weeks battling her illness.”

A New Approach: the Living Funeral

Another trend gaining popularity is the “living funeral” where an individual is not only involved in planning a celebration of life party but also attends their own end-of-life celebration so they can actually experience it before passing on. This approach provides an opportunity for friends and family to show their love and respect in person and gives the guest of honor a chance to look back on their life and share their best memories.

The concept was first introduced in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom where the titular character organizes and attends his own living funeral. Barbara Corcoran, one of the hosts of “Shark Tank”, ran with the concept and didn’t just organize and attend her own living funeral, she also showed up to the affair in a casket.

When we asked our three industry experts if the concept of a living funeral appealed to them, opinions varied. Kaniuk and Valdez indicated that they would be open to attending their own celebration of life, or living funeral, while for Centazzo, the jury is still out. All three do agree, though, they would definitely not show up in a casket!

Celebration of life events, as an addition to or substitute for a traditional funeral, is a custom that’s gaining popularity, as is pre-planning your own celebration of life ceremony. As you read in the responses from our industry experts, there are a lot of advantages to this sort of planning. It takes away the burden of planning from those that survive you and you can ensure that the ceremony is exactly the sort of send-off you want. Of course, preparing for such an event can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many available resources to assist you with end-of-life celebration planning.