What Would Your Memorial or Celebration of Life Look Like?

by Victoria Thompson



How to create a ceremony of a lifetime

Is it possible that while experiencing loss one can also view what was gained? A life celebration offers the chance for a joyful and thoughtful reflection of who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve enjoyed, and who you’ve loved.

In the recent Seattle Times story, “Friends honor artist’s last wishes with water ballet in a Seattle kiddie pool,” writer Brendan Kiley tells the story of a female artist who chose to create her life celebration with “crazy mad art.” The endearing story and celebration involve retro bathing suits, Esther William’s swim choreography, community, love, music and a wading pool.

In pondering what I would like for my life celebration, I let my inner party planner run wild. Give me a good send-off party after the memorial. Don’t be chintzy with food and drink! Serve champagne and really good lattes. Hire a traveling barista. A variety of ethnic foods to serve guests would be great. Serve food with Vernor’s ginger ale [a Detroit-made soda].

What would your life celebration look like? Where to begin the pre-planning process? This blog focuses on things you might consider for the “heart” of a celebration.

For preplanning purposes, a typical format for a memorial or celebration of life includes a few key elements:

  • Social and gathering time
  • Music
  • Speakers
  • After party
  • Costs

Commemorate your life with a life celebration

Once you’ve decided on a tone, theme, or ambience you prefer, choose a setting or venue that reflects these choices.

    Social and gathering time

    During this informal time while old acquaintances and family members reacquaint themselves, consider a space where a photo slide show of your life can be viewed, or where guests can contribute a memory to your family via a “memory” bowl or even digitally on a laptop. Beverages served as guests arrive add to create a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.

    Music for a life celebration

    Music sets the mood. Don’t be afraid to pick an unexpected genre, especially if there’s an acoustic or instrumental version of, as an example, the hard rock you love. At my deceased friend’s memorial, disco was played to reflect music she loved dancing to. I attended another memorial where a playlist included songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. But you might prefer a Grateful Dead tune. “Best Funeral Songs to Go Out To” is an article on a British website that lists amazing choices for a variety of musical tones.


    Much like a wedding or anniversary celebration, a formal time of honoring comes when a religious officiant, family member, or friend welcomes guests. This more formal part of the celebration could begin with a piece of music. I went to the memorial of a former WWII Marine where a pianist played a poignant rendition of the “Marine’s Hymn.” It was very affecting to hear this usually boisterous song played adagio at the beginning of the service.

    Sometimes it’s difficult for family members or the introverted to speak at memorials. Other people are naturals. If you have a particular someone in mind to write a eulogy, but who might have trouble reading it, let them know it’s OK to have someone else read. Alternately, a favorite poem or religious reading can be assigned to various family members and friends. If you have an event that carried great importance, consider writing this into your plans and request that it be read. You might even write a letter to be read at your memorial. 

    Often after the official segment has ended, the officiant will ask if anyone else would like to speak. I was at a memorial where there was total silence when this was announced. However, at the luncheon afterwards in a church basement, there was a stage and a microphone. In this relaxed setting, many people mounted the stage to share feelings and stories.


    Last but not least, flowers add a fresh, cheerful element to the ceremonial setting. My southern grandmother loved cardinals and they’re also the Kentucky state bird. At her request, the florist put decorative feathered cardinals in each arrangement and all the grandchildren got to take one home. I put mine on the Christmas tree each year.

    A cremation urn that celebrates you

    As part of your preplanning, perhaps you’ve decided on cremation. Consider having a memorial cremation urn tastefully displayed that houses your cremation ashes. Cremation urns are available in various materials, such as ceramic, wood, marble and stone, glass, and there are biodegradable urns.

    What type of cremation urn resonates strongly with how you’ve lived, that reflects your passions in life, or simply an urn that resonates with your wishes for a place of final rest?

    A ceramic elephant urn that displays dignity and family? A contemporary Mission-style stained glass  cremation urn? Perhaps a vibrant red marble urn. Or a handmade wooden urn that reflects a hobby such as the Soft Breezes cremation urn that depicts a sailboat. Many people like to have their ashes scattered across an area or body of water that is meaningful. In this case, a keepsake cremation urn can be kept on display or at home that houses a small portion of ashes.

    The After Party: A reflection of you

    It can be as sedate as coffee and cake in the memorial location, or as elaborate as your budget allows. It can be held at a restaurant or rented space, a picnic location, a rented barn in the country (where the memorial can be held as well), on an excursion boat, in a rented hall, on a village green, in a country club, in someone’s backyard … it can be catered, a potluck, a cookout. The possibilities are endless.

    • Activities

    Let the after party reflect you. Choose a horse-drawn carriage to transport celebrants to your celebration of life. Other ideas include kite flying with messages written to the deceased (you), or a trivia contest involving all minutia of your life. Activities such as croquet, board games, dancing, pick-up basketball, golf putting, or folk dancing add a festive flavor. What about a board where people sign up to do something on their “bucket list” in memory of you?

    • Food

    What did you love best in life? Viennese tortes or grilled steaks, or a tea party. The food could also showcase your heritage, such as a Mexican fiesta feed followed by a good piñata whacking or a Southern spread including corn bread, chicken and pecan pie.

    • Music

    Often an essential element of the after festivities, music sets the tone. Consider compiling a play list of music popular during each decade of your life. Imagine guests who were your peers smiling as Michael Jackson begins singing … or a Frank Sinatra ballad comes on, or maybe your favorite U2 song starts up. 

    Or why not a medley of songs from every place you lived, representing the geography of your life? Lived in California? Beach Boys. The South? Blue grass, blues, country or roots music. New York City? Broadway hits. You get the idea.

    Preplanning costs for a life celebration

    Money can be earmarked for your life celebration and is a kindness to your family. Many bank accounts are frozen upon the death of a customer. A payable-on-death account (POD) can be immediately accessed by a named beneficiary, circumventing the probate system. A certificate of deposit with a named beneficiary is another option.

    For additional preplanning information, see our article, "Preplanning and Prepaying Cremation Costs."

    Writing it all down

    Now that the tools to create a life celebration or memorial of your life are gathered, sit down, pour a cup of coffee or tea and put your requests in writing. It’s prudent to give a copy to family members and to put one in an accessible place in your home. This is your working copy. Let others know that their copy may be subject to change 

    I keep all my important paperwork and instructions in my living trust binder and have told friends and families where it’s located in my home. 

    Expect that feelings will surface as you write your wishes. You might feel happy, as I did, by letting inspiration lead me to create an event I think will be appreciated and meaningful to my survivors. You might shed a few tears. But the overarching feeling might surprise you -  the satisfaction of knowing you relieved your survivors of the worry of “getting it right” and that you poured the truest “you” into your afterlife celebration plans. 

    What are your ideas for how you would like to be celebrated? We'd love to know.

    Victoria Thompson lives with her geriatric cat in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has a professional background in newspaper and magazine work as a writer and editor. Minneapolis Public Schools enjoy her presence during the school year where she works as a special education teaching assistant and grant writer for her school. She was a caretaker to her mother—who suffered from Alzheimer’s— for 11 years.

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