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Why Has there Been a Shift from Funerals to Celebrations of Life?


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Why Has there Been a Shift from Funerals to Celebrations of Life?

Commentary by Walter Hesford | FāVS News 

Growing up I attended several funerals, but no celebrations of life. I never even heard of them and don’t know if they existed back in the 1950s and 60s.

Now I hear about and attend as many celebrations of life as funerals if not more. What has brought about the shift from funerals to celebrations of life? What are the differences between the two? What religious and cultural values does each reflect and foster?


The answer to the first questions might be given in one word: secularization. Historically a funeral is a religious event, overseen by someone with religious authority. As our society has become more secular, more people may be uncomfortable with a religious service and desire instead a non-religious event.

This desire was demonstrated in Moscow a few years ago when a member of my church who was a beloved baker died. Even though he was given what I thought was a powerful and meaningful funeral in our church, some of his friends organized a celebration of life for him a week later in our community center. This event, his friends felt, could be more inclusive.

Life Valued More than Death?

Another possible reason for the shift is our culture’s desire to affirm life and avoid death. Funerals are by definition linked to death. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the word “funeral” comes from the Latin “funus/funer” meaning “death rites.” Who now takes satisfaction in a death rite?

Those who value traditional funerals do. We find comfort in old rituals, old statements of belief, old scripture readings, old hymns. To comfort those who are grieving is a main function of a funeral. Sorrow is expressed, along with gratitude and hope.

There is comfort in the familiar procedures of a funeral. In the ones I’ve attended (many Protestant), the coffin is brought in from the church entrance and up to the altar. The deceased loved one is prayed over, blessed, then sent off into the hands of God.

Often the mourners proceed to a cemetery, where the deceased is committed to the earth with the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Our earthly end thus echoes our dusty beginning. A couple summers ago I attended a “green” burial in which the return to earth was particularly moving and beautiful.

Celebration of Life Service Compared to a Funeral

There are literal ups and downs to funerals. Celebrations of life are, in contrast, largely level.

The last one I attended was in the club house of a golf course enjoyed by the deceased. Here family and friends gathered, chatted, ate and drank for a while, as photos of the love one scrolled on a screen and soft music played. There were flowers set around a large photo of the loved one.

Finally family members and friends paid tribute, expressed love and shared memories. There were some tears, more laughter, followed by another slide-show set to music and more conversation. Then we scattered.

There is a rhythm and pattern to these celebrations that, like funerals, may provide comfort, community and closure. One can find online patterns for celebrations to follow. Even funeral homes offer them — for a price.

Can We Have Both?

The iconography of celebrations of life befits a culture in which we are more prone to honor an individual person than God. “Why not both?” my brother, a retired Lutheran minister, might ask.

He told me that in recent years funerals often incorporate aspects of celebrations of life, elevating what was treasured by the deceased. He says that in the Upper Midwest, where he now lives, funeral programs sometimes proclaim funerals to be celebrations of life.

My brother notes that a number of the funerals he conducted were tragic rather than celebrative, like that for a stillborn baby, and for a 17-year-old gang member and for a young boy killed in a drive-by shooting.

His best friend asked if angels in heaven enjoyed somersaulting, since his friend was good at it. My brother assured him that they did. Pastors, says my brother, should fit funerals to the needs of their flock.

Traditional funerals may seem cold and formulaic without a touch of celebration. Often after a burial, folks will be invited back to the church fellowship hall for some food and conversation.

While funerals may incorporate some celebration, I doubt that celebrations will incorporate the theology and dynamics of the traditional funeral.

So as the shift from funerals to celebrations continues, those of us blessed with a long life have an end-of-life decision to make.

The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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Lynn Kaylor
Lynn Kaylor
6 months ago

In my opinion, more than secularization is involved in the move from funerals to celebrations of life. I would include deliberate exclusion. Some of us have been barred altogether from the traditional “funī” (death rites) of our birth traditions because we had faced much ostracism and estrangement from our birth traditions and families. For trans people like me, the very idea of a funeral is a complicated one. It’s further complicated when we’re disrespected in death by open casket funerals and burial according to the birth sex and birth name imposed upon us. As far as I know, only California has outlawed this intrusion.

The International Transgender Day of Remembrance falls upon November 20, but often, memorial gatherings are held on weekends close to that day. This year, Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide, a project of Transgender Europe (TGEU), reported 320 known murders of trans people with 94% consisting of murders of trans women or trans feminine people, and with first reports from Armenia, Slovakia, and Belgium appearing. 45% of registered cases in Europe were of migrants or refugees. 73% of registered cases worldwide were in Latin America and the Caribbean region with a third of cases occurring in Brazil. https://transrespect.org/en/trans-murder-monitoring-2023/

I’m attending a Day of Remembrance event this afternoon at the Spokane Central Library. We try to treat this as a collective celebration of life while protesting the injustice of hate crimes. The difficulty is that so little information comes to us as to how these people lived. We cannot do funerals, of course. But we remember nevertheless, appealing to the conscience and will so long as such murders continue.

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