A friend’s mother passed away recently, and I was invited to attend her funeral service at a church. Her white vase-shaped cremation urn sat at the head of the altar while the eulogist told us about her life, conveying she was a loving mother, sister, wife, and daughter. We sang hymns and read aloud from a few family-selected scriptures and then commenced to the church dining hall where the family hosted a lunch with finger sandwiches, deserts, coffee, and water. It was an appropriate tribute to a woman who will be dearly missed by many; a funeral in keeping with the norms and traditions of long ago.
I also recently lost a very close friend. He was truly one of a kind. Smart, successful, ambitious, kind, and hilarious. He had many hobbies, including fast cars, fishing, flying, and baseball. He was not a religious person, but he lived his life in the service of others. His celebration of life was held at an apple orchard near his home. His family and close friends took turns sharing stories about their favorite memories of him. Tears were followed by laughter, as those close to him recounted his lovable peculiarities that made their life with him so special and interesting.
Because my recently departed friend had suffered from a long illness, he and his family had time to contemplate the perfect celebration. The family set up a Facebook page to “share” celebration suggestions and “crowdsource” the contribution of skills—such as videography, graphic design, voice-over talent, and music—from their friend and family network, making the event truly collaborative, meaningful, and deeply personal.
Based on his wishes and the creative thinking of his loved ones, my friend’s custom cremation urn was in the shape of the Formula One race car he drove as a young man, and the post-celebration fare was brats and burgers to commemorate his love for baseball. The celebration was capped by cocktails and a bonfire, per his own wishes. Following the life celebration, family and friends started a road trip to scatter his ashes at some of the most memorable places of his life, beginning with Watkins Glen Racetrack in New York, where he had once raced.
The difference between these two events was palpable. Both remembrances honored the deceased and gave loved ones an opportunity to share their grief, comfort one another, and begin the healing process. But where one event seemed largely ceremonial, another captured the celebratory essence of a life well lived. One felt uplifting where the other felt mournful. It prompts many these days to ask the question of whether the traditional funeral, as we know it, has become a thing of the past. Is the funeral, itself, dying?
A Shift in Traditional Thinking
With Americans overall becoming more secular, ceremonial funerals are also becoming less common. Although the idea of a life celebration supplanting a more traditional funeral is not new, the notion of a non-traditional remembrance is gaining steam due to a variety of trends. Societal transience, for example, has changed the nature of mourning the deceased. It’s also no secret that cremation rates have been rising while casket burials are becoming the exception, rather than the norm. Simply put, the fact that friends and family are now widely scattered across multiple states and countries makes it less likely that mourners will visit a gravesite, causing families to rethink end-of-life alternatives. A custom and personal memorial that’s an ever-present tribute to the deceased—such as unique urns or mementos that capture the essence of a loved one—helps connect grieving families and friends in a way that a physical burial site, miles away, cannot.
However, the most significant force of change is the Baby Boomer generation. Having long eschewed societal customs, they are simply rewriting the “rules” about what an end-of-life celebration ought to be. They are embracing the shift away from traditional funerals, seen as an impersonal throwback to a bygone era. As people live longer, fuller, and more adventurous lives in the new millennium, there’s an overwhelming desire to leave a legacy that speaks to a life enjoyed rather than a death mourned.
To celebrate a life well lived, rather than mourn the death of a loved one, consider some of these departures from tradition:
Rather than choosing to gather at a funeral home or church, consider hosting a life celebration at a place that was exceptionally meaningful to the deceased. I’ve been to memorials at golf clubs, racetracks, and bars that were perfect backdrops for honoring the deceased. While some may consider such celebrations “undignified,” today’s families are far less likely to look to funeral directors or even clergy as the arbiters of dignity and “good taste.” After all, the beauty of a life celebration is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Food and Drink:
As with location, don’t let tradition dictate how you celebrate. Some of the best memorials I’ve attended have featured unique food and beverage choices that were individual favorites. I’ve eaten just as much southern-fried catfish and cheese curds at life celebrations as I have cold cuts and potato salad. Whether the deceased was a fan of haute cuisine or comfort food, there are options for every personality that will satisfy guests and make them smile as they remember their loved one’s impeccable taste.
I happen to work in the life celebration business. We are, as I like to call us, story tellers. An enthusiastic remembrance of life’s hobbies, accomplishments, and passions is always a key starting point for every memorial we create. When planning a memorial tribute, consider how your loved one would want to be eternally remembered and honored. Was he an athlete? Was she a master gardener? Did he love spending time on his boat? Did she cherish her prized convertible? Perhaps there were many passions to be celebrated. Accordingly, the theme can be as broad or as narrow as you choose.
I’ve had the honor of playing a small role in paying tribute to some of the most cherished musical artists of our time, among them was the legendary musician, Prince. As with food, theme and location, music is an incredibly meaningful piece of any life celebration. I’ve been a part of memorials that included songs by Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, and dozens of other artists not known for their spiritual music. The soundtrack for your celebration can be as simple as a Spotify playlist or as elaborate as a string quartet. Music is tied closely to memory and can help to recall positive images and feelings associated with the deceased.
Celebrating a Life Well Lived
Let’s face it. No one—least of all those spirited individuals who seek to live life on their own terms—wants a funeral. They’re designed to make an inherently sad occasion even sadder. Their sameness makes them unremarkable, and worse yet, quickly forgettable. In contrast, life celebrations and creative memorials are built to last and to carry forward the memory of a loved one in a meaningful and enduring way.
Change is constant, and funeral traditions are not immune to evolving social and spiritual conventions that can be updated or improved upon. In the end, the only right way to remember a loved one is the way that brings you comfort, peace of mind, and relief from grief. Whether that remembrance takes place in a church sanctuary or an airplane hangar, the spirit of individuality, creativity, and celebration can shine through every tradition, easing pain and beginning the healing process. Life brings infinite possibilities; end-of-life rituals ought to be just as limitless.
To learn more about celebrating a life well lived or for inspirational custom urn designs, contact Foreverence today. Our process for making personalized urns is simple and will help you creatively memorialize you and your loved one’s unique personality and legacy.
About the author:
Pete Saari is founder and CEO of Foreverence, a Minneapolis company that helps individuals and families tell the stories of their lives through creative urns and tributes that represent an individual’s passions and pursuits. Although the company has made one-of-a-kind cremation urns for several celebrities, Pete believes every person has a story worth telling.