What to Say at a Celebration of Life Service?

If you’re attending a celebration of life service, it’s crucial to be sensitive and thoughtful. After all, it’s a ceremony to honor the memory of someone who has passed away.

But when you’re given the opportunity to share a few sentences, it can be challenging to know what to say.

Here are some ideas on what to say at a celebration of life service, according to experts:

Miranda Hernandez

Miranda Hernandez

Grief Positive | Death Positive | Writer, Adrian’s Elephant

Share a memory of how the deceased helped you in a time of need or how they made you feel

The biggest thing to remember when attending a celebration of life is that it is a celebration, however emotional. You are here to honor the authentic life of the person who is deceased.

Accept your discomfort

Death is often a taboo subject in our culture, and talking about death can make people uncomfortable. If this is the case for you, acknowledge your discomfort, accept it, and show up anyway. Your willingness to embrace the discomfort will be remembered and valued.

Be present

Read the invitation carefully. Show up on time in the appropriate attire. If it’s a party, participate. If it’s a more formal event, follow the event expectations. Above all, be present and engaged—eat, share, mingle, and interact with other participants.

Avoid platitudes

When confronted with a sad or tragic situation, it is tempting to default to cultural platitudes. Please don’t.

Some particular statements to avoid:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” (It doesn’t).
  • “You’re so strong!” (Appearances can be deceiving).
  • “Time heals all wounds.” (Time by itself does not heal. It is only a measure of the length of the process).
  • “Think about what this is teaching you!” (The lessons learned from loss will never be worth the cost).

Use caution with religious and other specialized sentiments

It’s important to understand that individual beliefs about religion, higher powers, and the afterlife are varied, even within members of the same faith.

The bereaved often find themselves questioning preexisting beliefs as well. Unless the family of the deceased has expressed specific religious sentiments, be cautious with references to God, heaven, or eventual reunion.

This is also true of any other specialized sentiments or beliefs. Sentiments that are meant to be comforting can often become unintentionally hurtful.

Share authentically

With so many restrictions on what you can’t say, you may wonder what is permissible. There is still a great deal you can share, all from the heart.

Some ideas include:

  • A favorite memory of the deceased
  • A funny story about the deceased or an experience you shared with them
  • A memory of how the deceased helped you in a time of need or how they made you feel
  • Something you were looking forward to sharing with the deceased
  • Something that reminds you of the deceased

Above all, be authentic. Relate real memories and feelings, even if they demonstrate flaws in the deceased. Flaws are part of what makes us all human, and humanity is what makes us worth honoring, to begin with.

Shelby Forsythia

shelby forsythia

Author, “Your Grief, Your Way” | Podcast Host, “Coming Back: Conversations on Life After Loss” and “Grief Seeds”

Share a specific sentiment about the person who has died

Beyond “I’m sorry for your loss,” it’s a wonderful gesture to share a specific sentiment about the person who has died. For example:

  • “My favorite thing about your mom was her ability to tell a joke at just the right moment!”
  • “I’ll never forget the time your husband and I went fishing and ended up lost on the river for three hours. He was so calm and helped us get home safely.”

Related: What Can I Say Instead of “Sorry for Your Loss”

Sharing a few sentences about a person who has died is one way to let a griever know that their loved one made an impact and that you appreciated getting to know them in life.

It’s also a way to share a memory that a grieving person may not know about, offering them more depth and perspective on their loved one at a time of great pain and sorrow.

If you’re struggling to come up with a specific story or memory, think about how you’d describe the person who died to a complete stranger. Were they kind, generous, reliable, trustworthy, encouraging, or helpful? Let those adjectives guide your sentiment.

Keep your story brief; your grieving friend will likely interact with a lot of people throughout the course of the day.

The last thing you want to do is go on and on, becoming a drain on their limited energy. Keep your focus on something you loved about the person who died, offer a hug or pat on the shoulder (if appropriate), then step back and allow the next person in the receiving line to come forward.

Damian Birkel

Damian Birkel

Leadership Author | Founder & Executive Director, Professionals In Transition Support Group Inc.

Briefly explain how you knew their loved ones and how they changed your life

While returning from a business trip, my father dropped dead from a massive heart attack when I was 20. It seems that all anyone said was: “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Related: What to Say When Someone Says Sorry for Your Loss

I found myself thinking: “You have no idea what I’m feeling,” and then the more I heard it, the angrier I became, thinking cynically: “You really aren’t sorry!”

My point? When I go to a Celebration of Life, the first thing I do when I meet one of the family is to:

  • Introduce myself. If you feel comfortable, it is appropriate to say: “I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through.”
  • Briefly explain how I knew their loved ones and how they changed my life. A short, funny story about the deceased person may lighten the profound sorrow the person is feeling. (Like the time I was at a Celebration of Life; wore my only suit, put my arms up to greet two family members, and my pants fell to the floor!)
  • Ask: “What can I do to help?”
  • End with a reassuring smile.
  • Thank them.

I have found that being short, sweet, supportive, and sincere can be very comforting to the family.

Marilla Argüelles

Marilla Argüelles

Program Designer | Teacher and Blogger | Motivational Speaker, Whole New Take

Most people consider Celebration of Life Services the obvious place to honor and respect the departed and to comfort grieving relatives for their loss, but too often, there are moments when this purpose gets overlooked or forgotten.

Unfortunately, such lapses are particularly misguided and regrettable during CoVID since even close family members who attend the memorial service may not have been able to be with the deceased during their last moments.

This becomes even more grievous if other attendees use memorial gatherings to joke about the faults and flaws of the dead. They assume their role is making the audience more comfortable by diverting them from the pain of loss.

I’ve never forgiven a relative who related an incident about his grandfather’s lapse of business ethics with such gusto and detail that his minister of many years immediately stepped to the podium to deny the accusations.

While my nephew would no doubt justify his action by pointing out that many in the audience snickered at the tale, it’s also possible they were gasping at such a questionable revelation, which at best should be saved for one of the casual gatherings at pubs and restaurants, if at all.

Focus on the good works, character traits, and intentions of the departed

It should go without saying that participants at memorial services and celebrations are expected to focus on the good works, character traits, and intentions of the departed in a way that comforts remaining friends and relatives and honors the dead in a respectful, ideally loving manner.

Share how and why the departed endorsed particular favorite causes and activities

Attendees who personally did not know the departed, or who may even have been estranged for some reason, can still show respect by taking a moment to share how and why the departed endorsed particular favorite causes, agencies, and activities, even if their support was limited to financial donations.

Sing, recite or play one of the deceased’s favorite songs, poems, or pieces of music

If the ceremony is held at or hosted by members of a particular congregation, it’s more respectful to leave prayers and hymns to members unless a close relative of the deceased specifically requests otherwise.

But singing, reciting, or playing one of the deceased’s favorite songs, poems, or pieces of music are other options that can comfort the bereaved and cause you to be remembered as a thoughtful and respectful guest.

These may even support coming to terms with your own complex feelings about mortality, which is one of the true purposes of such a service.

James Walsh

James Walsh

Serial Entrepreneur | World-Touring Speaker | Podcast Host | Self-Help Books Author

Personal stories are extremely important during the celebration of life speeches

As both a traveling public speaker and life coach, I have years of experience crafting speeches—whether for myself or my clients. Not to mention, I have spoken at many celebrations of life services throughout my life.

The first step toward creating a celebration of life speech is to simply sit down with a pen and paper (or word processor) and think. Jot down everything you can think of that made the person special and unique. Once you have your notes, re-read them and highlight the key points that you would feel the most comfortable addressing during the celebration of life.

Oftentimes, these points can connect to a personal story or anecdote about the person that the audience has never heard before.

Personal stories are extremely important during the celebration of life speeches. Why? There are two reasons:

  • It’s human nature for personal stories to connect with audiences in this type of situation much more than by providing generic statements about the individual.
  • You want what you say to be unique and to provide a different perspective than what others at the celebration have already said.

The key is for you to try to remember an event or two that took place, representing some of the individual’s positive traits. (Generosity, unselfishness, sense of humor, etc.) Doing so will convey that you have a deep understanding of the person and what he or she was all about.

It’s best not to be overly serious or overly humorous. Instead, try to find a perfect balance.

Once you have a story or two in mind, go on your computer and write the rough draft of your speech. Don’t expect this draft to be perfect by any means. Simply get your stories and/or anecdotes in order. While doing so, envision that you’ll have dozens of eyeballs staring you down as you speak. Do not let this thought intimidate you. Instead, use it as motivation to create compelling sentences that reinforce your care and admiration for the individual.

Another action to consider doing is envisioning that the individual will be watching you give your speech.

Maintaining this vision will keep you on the right track toward crafting some paragraphs that are both sincere and from the heart. Once you’ve edited your rough draft, read it to some friends and family. Allow them to provide feedback. But this doesn’t mean that you have to apply every single piece of feedback. After all, this is your speech, and I do not recommend sacrificing creativity for conformity. Once you’ve gathered feedback, go back to your draft and improve it as best as you can. Try to “trim the fat” so that you’re not repeating yourself.

Remember: it’s better to give a really great speech that lasts 90 seconds than an “okay” speech that lasts five minutes.

After your final draft is in place, practice reading your speech again in front of a mirror. You do not have to memorize every single word. But your speech will be more effective once you can routinely look straight at the audience instead of having to have your head buried in notes the entire time.

Next, you’re now ready to go over to the celebration of life and speak from your heart. Try not to be nervous. There is nothing to lose. Instead, there’s a lot to gain since you have done your due diligence to craft something special that can resonate with the audience and honor the individual you’re celebrating.

Be brave, be confident, and have fun. Remember, this is a celebration—so make sure that you celebrate the person in the manner that he or she would desire.

Gabby Martin

 Gabby Martin

Supervisor, Bio Recovery

Holding a celebration of life service helps you move on

We’re often asked if families should hold a celebration of life service. Families are hesitant about holding one initially, partially due to the shock of the loss and sometimes due to the expenses involved. We always encourage our clients to hold a celebration of life service if they can. Families that do hold a ceremony later tell us that the ceremony helped them connect with their memory more intimately.

If expenses are the main concern, we point them in the right direction to eliminate unnecessary funeral expenses or get the financial assistance they need.

Tell stories and relive memories about the person

A lot of people think speaking about the deceased is upsetting, and many people grieving are worried about sounding vulnerable. The reality is, talking about loss is not easy, and confronting that emotional pain makes you strong. Beyond that, reminiscing on fond memories at a celebration of life service helps everyone grieving relive the good times. That’s the best sense of comfort during an untimely circumstance.

So, tell stories and relive memories about the person. Remind the bereaved you are there for them and that they won’t forget all the good qualities about the deceased.

Mementos are also a great gift, whether it be a personalized memorial gift like a carved stone or printed candles.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I help plan a celebration of life service?

If you’d like to help plan a service, it’s best to contact the family or friends of the deceased person and offer your assistance.

They may be grateful if you help them with tasks such as choosing a venue, selecting music or readings, or creating a slide show or photo exhibit.

When planning a celebration of life, it’s important to honor the life of the deceased person and the positive impact they had on others. Consider adding personal touches, such as the person’s favorite music or hobbies, and encouraging guests to share stories or memories of the person.

The most important thing is to respect the family’s wishes and to provide support and comfort to them in any way you can.

What should I wear to a celebration of life?

Appropriate attire for a celebration of life may vary depending on the wishes of the family and the tone of the occasion. Generally, it’s best to wear respectful and appropriate clothing for a solemn occasion. This may mean dressing in dark or subdued colors or wearing a more formal suit or dress.

However, some celebration of life services may have a more casual or upbeat atmosphere, and in those cases, it may be appropriate to dress more casually. If you’re unsure about what to wear, it’s always a good idea to ask the family or the service organizer for guidance.

Is it okay to laugh and share happy memories during a celebration of life service?

Yes, it’s absolutely okay to laugh and share happy memories during a celebration of life. In fact, many life celebrations are designed to be upbeat and celebratory, focusing on the person’s life and the positive impact they had on others.

Sharing happy memories and stories can be a beautiful way to honor a person’s memory and provide comfort to those who are grieving. It can also help shift the focus from sadness and loss to joy and celebration, which can be a healing experience for all involved.

Remember that grief is a complex and multifaceted experience; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. Laughter and joy can be just as important as sadness and reflection, and it’s okay to embrace all the emotions that come with honoring someone’s memory during a celebration of life.

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