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Memorial service vs. celebration of life: differences and definitions

There are various ways to commemorate someone’s life when they die. Usually, family and friends choose to gather and remember their loved one. Funerals and memorial services should be tailored to what best aligns with the deceased, including what was important to them, their personality, and the life they lived. 

In this article, we look at two common alternatives to a traditional funeral — memorial services and celebrations of life. Find out what each one is and how they differ so you can choose the right one for you or your loved one. 

What happens at a memorial service?

A memorial service is an event that takes place after someone’s death when people gather to remember them. It can take place at a funeral home, a place of worship, a private venue, or even at home. You can choose to have the memorial service wherever you feel most comfortable. Typically, a memorial service includes readings, eulogies, and music to honor the life of the deceased. 

What usually happens at a celebration of life?

A celebration of life is similar to a memorial service but it’s intended to be a more joyful event where you celebrate who the person was and what they meant to everyone. Attire for a celebration of life may range from casual to formal depending on the event, but rarely adheres to the traditional black clothing found at funerals. If someone would rather have a celebration of their life than a funeral or memorial, they often state this in their end-of-life documents or simply express this wish to their family before they die.

Celebration of life vs. memorial service

A celebration of life and a memorial service are typically both less formal than a funeral and can take place any time after the death. A celebration of life focuses on the person’s life and the joy they brought to their loved ones, while a memorial service tends to be more somber. A memorial offers more flexibility than a funeral and is considered less formal. 

Both memorials and celebrations of life can include readings, music, and eulogies, but a celebration of life has a more upbeat tone. Of course, people often still feel sad at a celebration of life and there may still be tears. However, the ceremony seeks to bring comfort by focusing on the good times enjoyed with your loved one.

Read more: Best songs for memorial services and funerals

Is a memorial service the same as a funeral?

A funeral usually takes place soon after the death and often includes a burial or cremation ceremony. A memorial service, on the other hand, can take place at a later date and is generally a less formal affair. If the deceased was religious, the funeral is often held in a place of worship and follows specific rites and traditions. A memorial service may include some religious aspects but is more flexible. You can also have a secular memorial service.

Celebration of life vs. funeral

A celebration of life and a funeral are at opposite ends of the spectrum. A celebration of life, while still emotional, is a joyful event that can be structured however you like. A funeral, on the other hand, is always somber and serious. It usually has a set order, follows traditions, and has a more formal feel.

Memorial and celebration of life ideas

If you’re planning a memorial or celebration of life, here are some ideas that would work at either event:

·   Plant a memorial tree

·   Read a poem

·   Organize a potluck dinner

·   Let off fireworks

·   Arrange live music

·   Create a memory board

·   Read a eulogy

You can find more inspiration in our 25 creative home memorial ideas or our article on 12 celebration of life ideas.

What to say at a celebration of life or memorial

Writing a eulogy for a loved one can be difficult. If you’ve arranged a celebration of life ceremony, then you might want to focus on the things you loved about the person. Perhaps there’s a funny anecdote about them or a favorite trip you want to speak about.

For a memorial, you can talk about what you’ll miss about the deceased. You could also include any favorite quotes you have about loss.

There are no strict rules about what you have to say, whichever type of ceremony you choose. You can find more help in our article on how to write a memorial tribute.

Memorial vs. celebration of life dress code

At a memorial, it’s customary to wear dark colors like black, navy, and dark gray. Depending on where the memorial is taking place, the dress code may be less formal than at a traditional funeral. The family may indicate what they’d like you to wear on the invite. At a celebration of life, the attire is often bright and colorful to echo the celebratory nature of the event. You might be asked to wear the favorite color of the person who’s died. If this is the case, again, the family will specify on the invite. If you are unsure, you can always check with the family about what to wear.

Planning an end-of-life ceremony

Organizing a service for someone you’ve lost can be overwhelming. If you feel that a formal funeral service isn’t right, then maybe you’d feel more comfortable with a celebration of life, a memorial, or another alternative. And don’t forget to reach out to friends and family for support if you need help hosting a memorial.

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