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Ceremony at Commemorative Event: Do Something

Using ceremony to explore mindfulness in the journey of dying, death, and the years following, in this 9-part series

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Ideas for commemorative events beyond traditional funerals.

The commemorative event—a funeral, memorial, wake, or gathering of some kind—may happen quickly after death, or may be scheduled for some time later.

We’re all pretty familiar with the traditional after-death events, often religious, sometimes followed by a short graveside service, and then a time for folks to eat together and share with one another.

Now, with about 30% - 70% choosing cremation (depending on location), there are fewer funerals with the body present and more memorial services at a later date. And with the popularity of ‘direct cremation’ on the rise (meaning the body is removed from the place of death directly to a crematorium), some people are opting out, and choosing to do nothing at all. There is no commemorative event, no gathering of the circles of the deceased life, and no shared closure for the living.

There’s lots of reasons that ‘doing nothing’ could make sense for the bereaved: exhaustion, grief, the far distances many would have to travel. And it’s also possible that they have a sense of not knowing what to do. In these times when many are ‘unchurched,’ and have yet to witness ways to sanctify a death with meaningful, alternative ceremony, they may benefit from consulting with a trained funeral celebrant.

A death is meant to be shared and carried, together. It’s important to do something, to bring together all the circles of connection that made up the deceased’s life.

A human being has died. A life is finished. This is one of the key things that makes us human: we attend to our dead with respect and care. And we attend to those who knew her by sharing this time together. This is an inclusive time, meant to soften and heal by bringing her circles of connection together – to remember her, to share stories with each other, and to reassure themselves that the community around her will go on.

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A funeral or memorial can be formal, yes, but the elements of a funeral ceremony can flex to fit any surroundings: a living room, a park, a beach, a museum, a barn, an online virtual experience, your backyard.

The thing is, do something. Offer inclusivity to all who knew her, so they can honor and recognize their collective loss, and in that way, strengthen and build the connection that comes from weaving her life into the fabric of their community.

Here are some ideas for commemorative events:

  1. Hire a funeral celebrant. These people are trained to listen closely to your needs and stories, and to help visualize and implement an event that suits you. You can find trained celebrants at the Celebrant Foundation.
  2. Give yourself permission to break out of the box of what we’ve always imagined a funeral to be. Hold it in any kind of place that suits – in a way that fits your situation.
  3. If you are in the inner circle of grievers, try not to be the main facilitator. If you don’t work with a trained funeral celebrant, minister, rabbi, etc., then see if someone you know is comfortable holding the space, working with large groups, and seeing that all can be seen and heard in the space. A teacher is a good example. Those in mourning have all they can do to be present with their own feelings: that is their sacred work.
  4. As regards to ‘celebrating’ a life, or making it a party-type event, understand that this may organically unfold, especially afterwards. But first, there are the truly sorrowful and somber feelings that are present that need to be addressed. That doesn’t mean play organ music and wear black (although that’s fine!). It means that in order to respect the sanctity of saying goodbye forever to someone who cannot ever be replaced, there first must be a time to name it. It’s why we are all here. Later, as the elements of ceremony unfold, laughter is natural, as stories are shared. There is an organic unfolding of the celebration of the life she lived.
  5. Make time within the ceremony for people to pass a microphone and share a short story. These are gifts, because each of us carry a story of her life, that others don’t know. Usually, this is the best part of any funeral. In fact, one of the most special funerals I led, for a 21 year-old woman, was almost solely comprised of deep, funny, honest, tender stories told one after the other by her multitude of friends.
  6. There must be a time afterward for food. Not before or during! There’s a reason for this: shared nourishment. This is a critical part of the commemorative event. Even if it’s a simple plate of cookies and tea, this is the time when the fabric of the communities becomes rewoven. We are human, we have lost, we feel anxious and sad, and now we have a shared meal. We have come together, and there is great reassurance and healing in this close to a funeral or memorial.

Find funeral and memorial examples,  along with readings, poetry, and prayers on the InspiredFuneral.com, a resource co-edited by Funeral Director Amy Cunningham and Funeral Celebrant Kateyanne Unullisi.


Kateyanne Unullisi is a Pacific Northwest-based funeral celebrant, home funeral guide, writer and death educator. As founder of The Emerge Foundation, Kateyanne works to educate and empower people to have the kind of positive death experiences she knows are possible. As a funeral celebrant, she is known for creating memorials and celebrations of life that help bring healing and connection. She is co-editor of The Inspired Funeral, a resource for language and ceremony templates for dying and death. She is co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies: A primer to honor the dying and the dead with reverence, light-heartedness and grace.


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