What to Expect at a Celebration of Life

When we lose a friend or family member, it can be heavy and heartbreaking. But unlike a funeral or memorial service, a celebration of life is a joyous event that honors a loved one’s transition to the other side through the sharing of memories and laughter by family and friends. 

While various end-of-life services have quite a few commonalities, a celebration of life and celebration of life etiquette is unique in quite a few ways. 

What is a Celebration of Life?

A celebration of life is a love-filled event meant to remember and honor a loved one who’s recently departed. Unlike a conventional funeral or memorial, it is meant to be a joyous occasion that incorporates goodwill and comfort. 

When a loved one exits the world, friends and family hold an event to honor the deceased. They share drinks, music, laughter and animated stories about the departed. Depending on the family’s personality, this event can be a full-blown party with all the works or a casual, contemplative, feel-good affair.

A celebration of life event is unconventional but still beautiful. It breaks all the rules and norms of a traditional funeral, so what may be considered a faux pas at a funeral or memorial service may be perfectly fine Celebration of Life etiquette. This goes for just about everything from clothes to gifts and behavior!

champagne glasses

Celebration of Life Etiquette

Since the atmosphere is quite a bit different from funerals, it’s important to understand the proper celebration of life etiquette before arriving. Read along and be sure to carefully consider your outfit as well as any gifts you may decide to bring. 

What to Expect at the Celebration

While each celebration of life is unique as the person being honored, you can generally expect a few different things to take place at the event.

Depending on the mood, the celebration can range from a super casual gathering where people mingle, eat or even dance. There may be a toast, a few stories shared and more simple bonding over a mutual friend. 

Some celebrations of life may be more organized and have a formalized schedule. An example of an order of service might look something like this:

  • Welcome and introductions
  • Religious or spiritual customs 
  • Eulogy
  • Readings and poems
  • Stories from loved ones
  • Music
  • Closing words

If a schedule was not given ahead of time, come prepared with a couple sentences on how you and the departed were acquainted as well as something kind to say about them. 

And don’t forget to silence your cell phone to avoid any awkward or rude interruptions!

What to Wear to a Celebration of Life

Celebrations of life don’t have a one-size-fits-all dress code. The appropriate outfit for this event depends on a few things including location, time and the activities planned. It is like going to any other occasion ─ you dress according to the theme!  The only unspoken rule is to dress modestly.

Whatever you choose to wear should bear a semblance of dignity and respect for the deceased — but this doesn’t mean you must sacrifice style. It shouldn’t be as sad and dreary as the classic all-black funeral look, and neither should it be overly showy or bold. You should only wear funeral attire when requested (which is rare and highly unlikely).

You can bring a dash of color to the event to express your celebratory mood like yellow, pink, blue, or even red. You can decide to be casual in jeans and tops or sweet    in a sundress. If the location calls for it, you can lace on a pair of your favorite sneakers or your go-to knee-high boots.

In all, keep to the theme and mood. If the invitation comes complete with a specified dress code, respect the wishes of the invitee(s) and dress accordingly. As long as you are dressed respectfully and modestly, your outfit will be just fine. 

What to Bring to a Celebration of Life

You are probably wondering if you are supposed to bring anything to a celebration of life ceremony, and if yes, what are you expected to bring? Well, this is an all-too-familiar question with a simple answer.

It is not out of place to bring gifts or write a condolence card. Like a kind gesture, a condolence gift symbolizes your love, support and comfort for the loved ones of the deceased. It also shows you held the departed in high esteem.

Bringing a sympathy card to the event is considered appropriate celebration of life etiquette in most cases, but you can also choose to go with a more personal or unique gift if preferred.

You can make a charitable donation to a cause the deceased was fond of or affiliated with. The family may also appreciate a meal like a fruit platter or a food basket filled with desserts or snacks. You can have this delivered to their home along with a sweet note. Sometimes, hand-written, heart-felt words of condolence or a specially crafted memorial message can convey more sympathy than material gifts; so don’t feel as if you need to break the bank.

When it comes to sympathy gifts, it is best to add a touch of warmth and personality. 

Give gifts that are reminiscent of the recipient. It can even be as simple and inexpensive as buying their favorite scented candle or chocolates.

vase of flowers on white table

Should I Bring Flowers?

It is not standard practice to bring typical funeral flowers like white roses or lilies as gifts when attending a celebration of life. However, If the departed loved daisies, or if their favorite color was yellow, consider bringing something like a yellow bouquet filled with sunflowers! 

To stay better aligned with celebration of life etiquette, consider sending a bouquet or a gift basket privately to their loved ones’ home. You can do this either upon hearing of the passing, or after the celebration of life.  

Remember, you don’t have to stick to all-white roses, either. Consider sending some lovely-scented blooms like tuberose, honeysuckle or other mood-boosting flowers to help brighten the recipient’s day. 

What’s the Difference Between a Celebration of Life and Other Ceremonies

We’ve already explored and answered all the fundamental questions about celebration of life ceremonies. Let’s take it a step further and highlight the differences between a celebration of life event and familiar traditional services.                                                                                                                                                                                            

Celebration of Life versus a Traditional Memorial Service

A traditional memorial service is akin to a funeral service and slightly different from a celebration of life. Though less formal than a funeral service, it still feels a bit somber ─ which a celebration of life tends to veer away from. 

While a celebration of life revolves around the deceased’s good and happy memories, a memorial service tends to center on the sorrowful passing of an individual.

It is common for people to wear dark and plain clothes to a memorial service. On the other hand, celebration of life etiquette allows for a dressier and more colorful palate. In essence, the attire worn to a celebration of life is more casual and dressy than that of a memorial service.

two women hugging each other

Celebration of Life versus Funeral

Celebrations of life ceremonies and funeral services are united by a common goal; to honor the deceased and their loved ones. But this is as far as their similarity goes. 

Again, a celebration of life honors the deceased’s pleasant memories in a lively and jolly manner, but a funeral mourns the deceased’s passing with sorrow and grief. Funeral-appropriate outfits are dark and colorless, but the celebration of life clothing standard is generally casual and considerably less dreary.

Another difference is that unlike a celebration of life or memorial service, the deceased are usually present at a funeral.  

Generally, what is said at a funeral might include religious formalities like eulogies, prayers and readings or a more secular approach filled with memories and stories shared by loved ones. In contrast, normal celebration of life etiquette veers off the faith-centered path, and it is usually more secular. 

A celebration of life ceremony is a beautiful and comforting alternative to funeral and memorial services. It is an unconditional expression of love and happiness for the life the deceased led. A celebration of life ceremony, as you may assume, does not equate to being happy about a person’s passing away. Instead, it seeks to replace grief with joy and sorrow with comfort.

That said, the celebration of life etiquette and order of events is unique and you will likely see something quite different from the typical funeral or memorial services. You are expected to dress casually, bring a gift or two, participate in bonding activities, and raise your glass in a toast to the dearly departed.