Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve been to events “celebrating the life” of someone who had recently died. Let’s just say there were lessons learned from each.

The first was a hockey teammate of my husband’s, gone at age 58 due to cancer. Although there were displays in the church with lots of photos, the “celebration” was more like a funeral service, with prayers and organ music and multiple mentions of comfort from Jesus. A minister spoke on behalf of the family. Towards the end, he invited people to get up and share their memories, and a very long and awkward pause ensued. He repeated the invitation, and then said the organist would play another hymn and we were all invited downstairs for sandwiches and coffee. Finally, a cousin stood up and shared some stories. Then a close friend did the same, and another.

Another celebration the following week, marking the departure of the 80-something mother of a friend, took place in a funeral home. There were no solemn hymns or prayers, in fact there were no speeches at all. Yet this event truly had the feel of a celebration of her life. Friends, family and friends of both filled the room, and there was much hugging and smiling amid people connecting over coffee, tea and goodies. A small number of family photos were scattered around the room, and there was a display of the cross-stitched, crocheted and knitted work and lovingly hand-made Barbie clothes the mother had produced.

Lessons learned:

  • If you might be overcome by emotion, it’s OK to ask someone else to speak for you, but don’t be shy to go beyond the minister and ask someone who knew your loved one longer or better. He or she might get choked up too, but probably not as much as you.
  • If you want people to share stories and memories of someone, line up a candidate or two ahead of time to break the ice.
  • Give visitors a sense of the real person. Share photos and meaningful things that capture the personality and unique traits of your loved one and prompt people to spontaneously share stories.

What do you think?