Like most people, I don’t particularly relish encounters with death. But, welcome or not, I’ve had my fair share. I’ve clasped a woman’s hand as her breathing slowed, became sporadic, and finally ceased. Through the cramped hallways of an ancient farmhouse, down which no stretcher could be maneuvered, I helped heft the sheet-wrapped body of a family’s matriarch to carry her to the waiting hearse. When a small Oklahoma church mourned a member who’d fallen asleep at the wheel, late at night, early in life, I was there, thinking of the joyless “Joy the World” the band of believers had choked out the day before that December 26th funeral. In each of these situations, the death of the young or the old, there was within me a desire to lighten the load of grief borne by the survivors, to shine a ray of life into the gloom of death.
Because of that desire, when I first heard about families opting to have a so-called “Celebration of Life” service for their departed loved ones, instead of a funeral, my interest was piqued. Perhaps here was a viable alternative. The name alone effuses a positive, uplifting appeal that “funeral” or “memorial service” can’t begin to match. Celebrations are good, right? And, life, well, who can possibly have any qualms about that? Perhaps this approach to confronting death, at least the ceremonial part of saying goodbye, would help alleviate some of the pain associated with, and expressed in, a more traditional rite. Maybe it was time to have a funeral for the funeral.
So what makes a Celebration of Life different? Rather than a focus upon the loss of a loved one, this service rewinds the present into the past, to draw the mourners back into the life lived by the deceased. It’s like a miniature, enacted biography of the person, with a focus upon those qualities, interests, and achievements that his family and friends found most endearing about him. Whereas a traditional funeral is structured around a liturgy, in this ceremony stories about the person””serious or lighthearted””take center stage. It is his funeral, after all, so shouldn’t it be about him?