How to Turn a Funeral into a True Celebration of Life


The next time you attend a funeral, don’t be surprised if it more closely resembles the last wedding you went to than the somber farewell you bid your grandfather decades ago.

In recent years, funeral services have evolved from formal, structured ceremonies with little or no information regarding the life of the deceased to a personalized celebration of a life remembered.

The key to turning a funeral into a celebration of life is planning a customized gathering that is representative of the decedent’s personality. Nearly every component of the event can be personalized these days, including the readings, music, displays, décor, venue and food.

Here is a small sampling of how some recent funerals were tailored to honor decedents’ unique lives:

  • At a funeral for a well-known concert pianist, the family opted to have a Steinway and Sons piano moved to the gallery of the funeral home. The florist created a huge spray of white flowers cascading from the strings of the piano onto a large carpet of flowers surrounding the instrument.
  • Another family brought in items related to the decedent’s work as a professional horseman for his visitation. Saddles, boots, numerous bales of hay, partial fence structures and even a live horse in a make-shift corral transformed the funeral home into a fitting tribute to a passionate equestrian.
  • For the funeral of an avid huntsman, the florist turned the funeral home chapel altar into a hunting blind. The deceased’s beloved hunting dogs were nearby, standing in hunting position.
  • The funeral service for a cycling enthusiast displayed the decedent’s road bike and cycling medals next to the casket. At the cemetery, members from his cycling club escorted the hearse carrying his casket from the cemetery gates to the gravesite on their bicycles.

While the examples above may strike some as peculiar, these personalized memorials are warmer, more intimate gatherings that encourage family and friends to reflect on the whole person and all the things they enjoyed in life rather than focus solely on their absence. Personal touches coupled with a less formal atmosphere also help funeralgoers feel more comfortable with sharing memories of the decedent.

Other elements can personalize a funeral service in addition to themes and creative décor. For example, music at a funeral service is not limited strictly to religious hymns. Funeral song selection can and should include the decedent’s favorite music. Photographs can easily personalize a service as well. Today it is commonplace to feature not only photographs, but also video tributes during a visitation. Dignity Memorial® funeral homes include the production of an Everlasting Memorial® video tribute with many of their funeral and cremation plans. Favorite religious passages, prayers, poems and other written works can be read at the service or printed in programs for an added personal touch as well.

Many families also choose to host receptions after the service, either at the funeral home, in the family’s home or at a favorite venue, such as a restaurant or park. These gatherings can be formal or extremely casual and usually include food and drink and sometimes entertainment. Receptions can be easily personalized with the decedent’s favorite music, activities, foods and beverages. Many are hosted pot-luck style these days in order to minimize the pressure and expense on the family and help guests feel more involved.

The bottom line is that funeral services are changing to meet the needs of a generation that has different ideas about life and death. You, and those you care for, can expect more and demand more from the funeral planning process. Making a plan in advance is the best way to ensure that one’s memorial service matches their personality and preferences.

By focusing the funeral service on things the decedent enjoyed and the experiences shared throughout their life, it encourages storytelling and discussion, which is an excellent way to preserve family memories. In some instances, these discussions may allow the family to learn special things about their loved one that they may have never known otherwise.

Molly Gligor leads the Houston area network of Dignity Memorial® funeral, cremation and cemetery providers. As a licensed funeral director for the past 20 years, she has assisted thousands of families during difficult times, helping them celebrate the significance of lives that have been lived and preserving memories with dignity and honor.

Dignity Memorial

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


When my mother-in-law passed away last year, I was dreading organizing her funeral. She had alienated what little family she had left and her one friend was too ill to leave her house. Her sister, who was well and widely-loved, had died just a few months earlier and there were close to 150 people at her funeral. My husband, an only child, was also dreading confronting the reality of a funeral with 3 people, which in his mind would only highlight the mistakes my mother-in-law had made in her life by alienating so many people and living such a circumscribed life. So, instead of going that route, I organized a celebration of her life several weeks after she died. We had her cremated without any fan fare. Then on a sunny afternoon, we invited her remaining sister and her children (several of whom at first refused to come since she had been so nasty to them). We also had some of our friends there who had met her and some of my husband's childhood friends who remembered her from when they grew up. We covered the house with photos of her -- she had been an astonishing beauty in her youth -- vases of long-stemmed roses, her favorite flowers, served her favorite foods and played a lot of Sinatra. All in all, it could not have been a better way to remember her. As we reminisced about her, it was as though the years sloughed off of the woman we were honoring, and we saw (some of us for the first time) her in her prime, filled with hope and love -- a great way to remember her.
A friend who had seen all his male relatives die of inherited heart issues by age 40 rented a community center and choreographed his own celebration of life. He was 39. His family came (all females), his men's group and his favorite club members shared the stage w/ their favorite moments w/ him, long tables had fotos from his birth, kids wading pools were full of beverages and ice, and the music was all his favorites. It did not dawn on me until the end exactly what the occasion was. He died a few weeks later, on a foray with his favorite club.
This is so true. A close friend died of cancer at age 54. His memorial service (he was cremated, there was no viewing, thank God) was very lighthearted and, although there were tears, there was also much laughter. His brother dressed up as him and "attended" the service, which was so like him, always making a joke to the very end.