Celebrating a Life – Your Options

I have to be honest with you, when I first made the decision to become a celebrant, weddings and namings were my focus. I was unsure whether I would be able to deliver funerals, uncertain as to whether I would have the emotional capacity to hold space for families who had lost a precious loved one. Like the majority of people, my only experience as a mourner was attending a service at a church or a crematorium. As with many celebrants I have met in and around Bristol, I soon realised that I could indeed give families a positive experience. I wanted to support them in their journey through grief by ensuring they experienced a ceremony that reflected their loved one – their personality, relationships, values and legacy.

When I said farewell to a precious family member in 2020, the celebrant made the ceremony feel personal and it was indeed a special tribute to my uncle. But with covid measures and limits placed on who could attend, everything else around the service felt cold. It was then that I realised that even without covid restrictions, once the ceremony was over, the next group of mourners were gathering outside of the chapel as we were exiting a one way system. Whilst this arrangement suits some families, it left me wondering whether there was an alternative for those who want something different.

Fast-forward a few years, when training I soon discovered that there are a multitude of options for an end of life celebration. Options that slightly soften the edges of the gut-wrenching pull of grief. Lots of options that we should all be aware of but we’re conditioned not to talk about. If we can begin to conquer the societal reluctance to dwell on mortality and end-of-life planning, we can shift to a culture more conducive to healthy grieving. 

So what do I now know that I want everyone to share in? There is a choice. 

You do not have to hold a funeral in a church or crematorium. Think village hall, community centre, social club, any venue where you are able to book a room large enough to accommodate family and friends. Outside if you wish to, couple this with a robust wet weather plan. Even venues who may never have hosted a funeral before may be an option if you approach them and enquire. 

The ceremony can take any form you wish and holding this somewhere free from strict time limitations opens up the opportunity for multiple speakers, symbolic rituals for everyone to participate in, musical performances, home movie screenings – there are no limits on what can be done to reflect the life, personality and values of your loved one.

Some families choose to hold a ceremony with the coffin present; some choose to decorate the coffin during the celebration of life. Alternatively, you don’t have to have the coffin present. It really is a personal choice and you get to honour your loved one’s wishes exactly how they would have wanted or decide what feels right.

It can be cheaper holding a funeral away from a crematorium depending upon where you choose as the alternative and whether or not you opt for catering. Opting for a direct cremation brings the cost down considerably. You can still have the coffin present if you choose this option – the direct cremation can follow the ceremony in the village hall, country house, etc.

You can go directly to your choice of celebrant. Funeral directors are experienced at matching celebrants in their network to the families they serve. However, if you have encountered a celebrant at a different juncture and have that person in mind, you have the freedom to book them directly. You do not need to go through a funeral director.

I recently had the absolute privilege to deliver a celebration of life ceremony for a wonderful 96 and a half year old (that half being ever so important to him) in a social club local to the family. The family opted to have an all-day affair – they wanted to recognise their loved one’s full, rich and exciting life in all its glory without limitations on time or atmosphere. And they were able to do this.

The funeral directors were wonderfully obliging, bringing K to the venue with dignity and care in a lovingly chosen wicker coffin. The family wanted K present and his coffin adorned with photos and a spray of flowers; his presence was really quite special. They also decided to set up a “K museum” with photo boards, personal effects, letters – a very special way to honour him. K was a car enthusiast and thus the family were able to tell a visual story of his motoring history. From his time in the Middle East on National Service to fishing in Wales, gardening at home and a pottery business, they paid tribute to all of the parts of his life in a way that a conventional funeral service just does not allow. 

The celebrant-led part of the day took place in the morning with time to deliver an extended eulogy or life story. It was a true honour to be able to tell K’s story without having to omit any of the important and significant moments. After lunch, K’s daughter and grandchildren stood up and shared various elements of his life that have left a lasting impact on them. Having a filmmaker as a grandson meant that K could make an appearance in the ceremony himself and being able to hear his voice and see the twinkle in his eye brought so much comfort to those present. It was so personal and so precious. 

When the time came for K to leave, his family and friends formed a guard of honour as he was escorted out. It was so incredibly moving and there was a true sense that K had had a proper send-off – authentic, heartfelt and appropriate to someone who had lived through so many decades, eras and much social change. And who had had such an impact on the lives of so many.

I cannot advocate for a celebration of life such as this enough. It was so personal and although I am not a grief expert, it provides an opportunity for deeper comfort and can be of aid when navigating the difficult and challenging transition to living without someone you love so dearly. A more organic, communal and bespoke approach could be the right pathway for you and your loved ones. Please get in touch if you would like support with planning an alternative celebration of life – I would only be too happy to advise.