t’s interesting; funerals and celebrations-of-life have much in common, yet they often appear very different. Each is a ceremony; a gathering of people who share a common loss. It’s just that one is more rooted in tradition, while the other is the result of recent changes in social values. But both serve to do three things:
1. Help the bereaved family, and their community, publically acknowledge the death of one of their own.
2. Support the grieving family by surrounding them with caring friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
3. Move the deceased from one social status to another.
Yet they achieve those things in very different ways. First, let’s take a closer look at what most of us commonly see as very traditional funerals.
It’s not surprising funerals have been around for a very long time. In fact, currently archaeologists cite a Neanderthal burial ritual, performed some 50,000 years ago, as the first known funeral. And while we could look at all the ancient funeral ceremonies, what we’re most concerned about is what was being done in the United States some decades ago; those funeral activities we know as the “traditional” funeral. Composed of three activities, the visitation, the funeral service, and the committal service, performed at the graveside; this funeral is the one we’d easily recognize from contemporary literature and film.
The Visitation: Held prior to the funeral, often the night before but sometimes on the same day, the visitation (or viewing) is a time when people come to support the family and, more importantly, pay their respects to the deceased. This often involves stepping up to the casket to view the body; either in the company of a member of the surviving family or on your own.
The Funeral Service: Commonly held in the funeral home or church, the traditional funeral service is led by an officiant of one kind or another; most commonly a pastor or the funeral director. This individual follows a very predictable funeral order of service which includes the singing of hymns; and invocations, Bible recitations, Scripture readings, and prayers led by the officiant.
The Committal Service: This takes place at the cemetery, after a slow and respectful automobile procession from the place where the funeral was held. Here too, guests are asked to participate in many of those same activities seen in the funeral service. The committal service ends when the casketed remains are lowered into the ground, and final prayers are said.
If you’d like to know more about the history of funerals in the United States, you may like to visit the website of the National Museum of Funeral History. But for now, it’s enough to know that a funeral service traditionally has these three distinct components. Now let’s look at a celebration-of-life service.
Author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Poisonwood Bible, wrote “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.” We think this reflection is at the heart of a celebration-of-life. While a funeral, as we’ve described it above, has more to do with the orderly and often spiritually-defined transition of the deceased from one social status to another; a celebration-of-life is more concerned with telling the story of the deceased. Celebrations-of-life are just that: a time people come together more to celebrate the unique personality and achievements of the deceased than to merely witness or mark the change in their social status.
Celebrations-of-life are “kissing cousins” to memorial services, which can be described as a hybrid event; combining the flexibility of a celebration-of-life with many of the activities of a traditional funeral order-of-service.
There’s more room for creativity in a celebration-of-life than a funeral. Since celebrations-of-life are commonly held after the individual’s physical remains have been cared for through burial or cremation; there is much more time available to plan the event. And without doubt, this allows you to make better decisions about how you’d like to celebrate the life of someone you dearly loved.