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A Living Memorial Celebration

by Linda Banks

Orange poppy - image by Jenny Downing

Image by Jenny Downing*

Would you like to attend your own memorial celebration? The idea might sound thrilling, or possibly depressing. An increasing number of people are throwing an end of life party before they die. Some consider a way to create perfect memorials and lasting memories for the attendees.

Today more people approach end of life with a positive frame of mind. Instead of planning a funeral where friends and family cry and mourn, some terminally ill invite loved ones to a living wake. They gather to eat and drink together, tell stories, read poetry, toast and roast, sing songs, laugh and cry.

Reasons for a living memorial service

  • Family and friends come together to commemorate the life of their loved one with their loved one who can enjoy the experience that otherwise might follow death.
  • The terminally ill get to celebrate meaningful relationships and say goodbye.
  • Planning a living memorial service provides time to explore options and to work within a budget. In the long run, it’s likely that a living memorial can be less expensive than a traditional service.
  • Family members are often relieved from having to plan their loved one’s service.
  • Usually the gathering is planned in advance. This gives family and friends from out-of-town adequate notice to make arrangements and attend the memorial reunion.
  • The experience can be positive and help people come to terms with illness, death, and loss.
  • We celebrate the important events in a life such as births, anniversaries, and birthdays. Our end of life deserves the same acknowledgement.

Living memorial celebrations in popular media

Living celebrations are reflected in our popular culture. Mitch Albom introduced many to the idea of a “living funeral.” In his 1997 non-fiction book tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson, Albom tells the true story of his dying college professor, Morrie Schwartz. After attending the funeral of a friend, Schwartz decides he wants to do something different.

"What a waste," he said. "All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it.”

Morrie decided to celebrate his life with a living funeral.

And on a cold Sunday afternoon, he was joined in his home by a small group of friends and family for a 'living funeral.' Each of them spoke and paid tribute to the old professor. Some cried. Some laughed. … Morrie cried and laughed with them. And all the heartfelt things we never get to say to those we love, Morrie said that day.

In the 2010 movie, Down Low, Robert Duvall plays a hermit who wants to attend his own funeral. After living alone for over 40 years, he puts an ad in the paper and invites guests to his funeral. He wants to be there to hear what people will say about him after he dies.

Many funeral homes recognize the increased interest in living celebrations and funerals, and they offer planning services. There are many websites that provide support and ideas with planning living memorials, including help with a memorial speech, or writing an autobituary. 

Denise Carson, author of Parting Ways writes extensively for her blog site OurLifeCelebrations. In Denise’s words the site is a “source that will hopefully inspire individuals, families and communities to reinvent how we approach end of life with new rituals that bring celebration, legacy and hope to a time of life that has been traditionally alienated for the last century.”

Below are a few considerations for planning a life celebration.

  • Plan your event with the same love and attention you would give a family reunion or anniversary. Prepare to celebrate this life transition surrounded by loved ones. These pre-death ceremonies can be party-like or somber.
  • Your living memorial may be upsetting and difficult for some. People have strong beliefs about rituals surrounding death and religious burials. It’s important to explain your reasons to those close to you. Let them know that it does not rule out a religious service, cremation or traditional burial following your death. 
  • Gather in your living room, favorite restaurant, church or community center. Choose music you like. The gathering can be as simple or elaborate, serious or whimsical as you wish. Throw a Hawaiian luau, 50’s dance party, barbeque or black tie dinner. Or plan a religious ceremony. It’s your celebration. There are no rules.
  • Some people prepare or purchase take home gifts for the guests. A small memorial keepsake provides a thoughtful gift for loved ones.
  • Have a memory box at the gathering and invite friends to write a memory. Bring photos or mementos and place them in the box. The stories and photos can be shared during the party and the keepsake box can be given to a family member.

In years past it was considered morbid to make your own funeral arrangements. Today, however, it is a common estate planning practice. Planning and paying for any aspect of your memorial service is recognized as thoughtful and gives peace of mind to your family.


Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother suddenly died, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day.