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Difference Between Memorial & Celebration of Life

by J. Malec

 Event checklist: image by Dennis Hamilton

Image by Dennis Hamilton*


A Celebration of Life: Ideas, Gifts and Learning the Basics

You may have heard the term 'celebration of life' before and didn't know quite what it meant. Maybe you're familiar with the concept and are attempting to plan a celebration of life but don't know where to start. Maybe you're planning a celebration of life checklist or are looking for celebration of life gifts or ideas. No matter what your reasoning is, you've come to the right place. To begin learning about a celebration of life unique, and what makes it unique, we have to start by discussing what it is not - and comparing the differences.

What is the Difference Between a Memorial Service and a Celebration of Life?

Planning a ceremony begins with a primary decision. Will the event be a traditional memorial service or a more contemporary celebration of life? The two event names suggest vastly different tones, so it's important to have an idea of what you want to accomplish at the gathering before deciding between a memorial service and a celebration of life.

But what does a memorial service entail? And what exactly is a celebration of life? When planning a service for your loved one, you might not have the full knowledge of these services, so it's important to be knowledgeable. Maybe you're vaguely familiar with one but not the other. Either way, learning the ins and outs can be vital when a crucial moment arrives.

A memorial service typically focuses on a recent loss and often has religious overtones. Meanwhile, a celebration of life is centered on the joy of having been blessed by a person's presence, and is often nonreligious, though religious services and life celebrations are not always mutually exclusive. When considering these options and choosing between them, it may be helpful to think about the culture of the family, religious preferences, circumstances leading up to death and any wishes previously indicated by the deceased.

Deciding whether to plan a memorial service or celebration of life often comes down to the wishes of the departed or the needs of the grieving family. There might be specific instructions for you to follow, or you might have to determine the solution on your own. Fortunately, OneWorld Memorials is here to offer you insight when planning a celebration of life or a memorial service.

What Do We Hope to Get Out of a Memorial Event?

The first thing you need to do when choosing between a celebration of life and a memorial service is ask yourself what you hope to get out of the event. Whether burial or cremation is chosen, there are important reasons for planning a remembrance. In a Huffington Post article, Marilyn Sewell writes about the significance of such an event.

The ritual of the funeral or the memorial service has several purposes. First of all, it helps mourners recognize the loss as real. Sometimes a body is present at the service, often not, but always we know that we are there to acknowledge that someone has died, and to acknowledge the death not just in fact, but in feeling. We come together to grieve in the presence of a caring community, and for the time of the service we have permission to give ourselves to the experience of loss.

These rituals, in reality, are mostly performed for the living. Interestingly, it is becoming more common for the dying to request no service at all. However, out of a need for closure, those who are left behind often choose to gather together to mourn and celebrate a life lost. The gathering also serves to fulfill a genuine need for support from one another during a difficult time, as well as act as a reminder that life will continue, even though the deceased is no longer with those remaining. Before planning a celebration of life or any memorial event, it is important to check with a dying loved one or verify that no request against one has been made in a will. It is also worth checking with family members who may understand the wishes of the recently departed. While your lost loved one may request a particular practice upon their loss, it is still possible to find this level of closure and comfort while still respecting those wishes.

A memorial event is commonly associated with a traditional service and funeral. Even if the deceased's body has been cremated, an honoring event can be held. Events focused on cremation include the display of a memorial cremation urn, a scattering urn and ceremony, or simply a memorial event without physical acknowledgment of cremation. Instead of an open casket, or a casket at all, an enlarged photo of the deceased and floral wreaths may be displayed. Sometimes, a memorial event may take place prior to cremation. As an open-casket event is time-sensitive while an urn display is not, many choose to hold memorial events following cremation.

Any form of memorial ceremony forms an important part of our social fabric. It deserves the same attention as other important markers of life events, such as weddings and baby showers. To not recognize an event of such magnitude as an important life step can leave us vulnerable to the effects of un-channeled grief. It can also confuse children about how to handle death as well as postponing the beginning of closure that allows us to move forward.

A Memorial Event and Celebration of Life Checklist

Whether you're pre-planning your memorial or are navigating the difficult decisions associated with planning a memorial for a lost loved one, our Memorial Event Planning Guide will help you walk through the planning process. The comprehensive guide and resource to planning your perfect memorial event and how to plan a celebration of life includes a concise, summarized checklist to get you started and to keep you on track.

  1. Determine the type of service or celebration.
  2. Decide on location, date, time and who will attend.
  3. Outline a budget.
  4. If desired, publish details about the service or event alongside the obituary in local papers.
  5. Compile a guest list and send invitations; include RSVP.
  6. Decide who will officiate or host the event. Consider hiring a planner.
  7. Select readings according to the desired tone.
  8. Write a eulogy; consider family or close friends to read, as well.
  9. Choose music. Consider a friend to play or hire a musician.
  10. Decide the sequence of readings, speeches and music.
  11. Create a physical or digital program.
  12. If cremation has been chosen, consider the memorial urn to be used for the service as well as keepsakes for close family and friends.
  13. Consider important final touches: flowers, food and drink, a memory table or board, and a memory chest for written notes and photos.
  14. Write thank-you notes or prepare a small thank-you gift for the help received.

Grief is usually considered a solitary journey through daily aloneness. Sharing the loss with others offers the potential to unlock silent grieving. Honoring a lost loved one with others through a memorial service or life celebration can provide unforeseen comfort and immeasurable support that is critical to the healing process. If you need extra support during this difficult time, OneWorld Memorials is here to help with articles and information that can help guide you.


J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.