“Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.”
Today, there is a multitude of possibilities in how we celebrate life and death, depending on each cultural/religious belief. Beliefs have everything to do with how the entire experience is handled. The common denominator of any ceremony is to regard and respect the life of the one who has died in some way, by saying prayers, offering monuments, hearing music and doing special readings, bringing out symbols, having processions, gatherings, and various other rituals/customs. In this article, we will explore the celebrations of life, the celebration of life service, funeral celebrations of life, what celebrations of life services are, and a celebration of life funeral and celebration of life ideas.
Human beings have been commemorating and celebrating people who have died since the beginning of humankind. Funeral rites date back to at least 300,000 years ago, also finding burial grounds dating back to 60,000 BC, with flower fragments and gifts (like antlers) left next to the body, signifying that some type of purposeful ritual took place to honor the dead.  Humans instinctively knew that death was something to be revered, that the physical body was temporary because after all, way back then, people didn’t live very long. Death was seen a lot more often than not. It was a short lifespan.
Beliefs about the soul/spirit living on after the physical body dies is also reflected in the variety of ceremonies, funeral rites, or rituals conducted even today, offering viable and seemingly tangible ways to help the soul reach whatever realm he/she is believed to be going, whether it’s the afterlife, resurrection, reincarnation, or nowhere. These types of ceremonies also serve as a time and place of healing for the mourning individuals, the bereaved families, and the friends left behind.
By focusing on the life part of the death, cultures around the world pay homage to their loved ones who have passed on in the physical sense, but their spirit/soul, live on in an invisible realm which we do not physically see with our human eyes.
Celebrations of Life and Death in America
In our Western society, how we acknowledge the death of loved ones depends on the values, beliefs, and religious people share, which are created to hold a unique balance between joy and grief.
Funerals, Memorials, and Celebrations of Life
All gather people together through a common loss of a loved one, although they are different in the focus. Funerals are usually conducted with the body present, more traditional and religious, while Memorials and Celebrations of Life often reflect more current social values that the friends and family share after the body has either been cremated or buried.
Funerals are usually held in various places of worship, like mortuaries, funeral homes – both religious and secular, synagogues, churches, mosques, monasteries, shrines, and other sacred places of worship or gathering places, and are usually found to be more traditional, following an order to a particular service. These are generalizations and funerals can be as wild as anyone wants them to be! Just look at jazz funerals in New Orleans! The moment the body is buried, everyone breaks loose, jazz bands play, and people march the streets in all their glory!
Celebrations of Life are more like Memorial Services, and usually held without the body present in diverse locations, such as homes, hotels, beaches, parks, enchanted forests, local pubs, or locations significant to the person who died, with the focus on telling stories about the person’s unique personality and achievements. And, many cultures believe that life does not end in death, so celebrating their next evolution takes on a whole other life of itself! Sometimes entire communities get involved for days to even weeks!
Today, there is a way of celebrating one’s life after a person has died that is becoming more popular, and that is called a Home Funeral. There are more and more Home Funerals taking place throughout the United States, with Green Burials becoming a viable option whereby individuals are directly buried into the earth, without being embalmed or encased in a concrete vault, as customary in most cemeteries.
My friend, Olivia Bareham, has an educational institute and funeral home, called Sacred Crossings. By the way, I received my certification as a Death Midwife and Home Funeral Guide from Sacred Crossings. Certified Death Midwives/Home Funeral Guides help the family members and the dying person, not only through the dying experience, but with the washing of the body after the person has died, preparing the 3-day vigil before the Home Funeral service, and providing all the supplies needed to decorate the casket, and oftentimes conducting and officiating the Home Funeral service itself.
A Personal Celebration of Two Lives
I’d like to share a personal experience I had with my two married friends, Toni and Gene Bua, whom I knew both for 34 years. They were living a fairytale marriage, being in love and married for over 44 years. They met on a soap opera in the 60’s, called, Love of Life, and were “the” couple for 10 years. They fell in love on and off screen. Both were actors, teachers, writers, directors, performers, and served as each other’s muses. Theirs was a love story seemingly written by the Universe itself.
Toni wrote lyrics to the songs Gene composed, and their complementary creativity between the two was truly a powerful force. Together they created original musical plays that touched the hearts of thousands of teens at risk and taught master acting classes that prepared professional actors to be ready at any given moment. Their level of talent was just off the charts. And, their love, well, their love was so strong, it could be felt a million miles away, especially by anyone who came near them.
On January 11, 2011, Toni was diagnosed with breast cancer, and could no longer care for Gene, who had had Parkinson’s for the previous 12 years. I was honored to serve as their caregiver, life coach, and death midwife, helping them to navigate through tender times.
Gene died in 2012. However, when Gene’s time was near passing to the beyond, we created a sacred dying experience for him, deeming the house as a reverent holy space. Anyone entering the house checked his/her fear at the door. The reason for this is when someone is dying if they are not feeling fear, and you come in with any level of fear, you inadvertently “impose” your fear on them. I hope this resonates because the aim is to keep the space as “clean” as possible.
Gene’s students and friends came over to be close to him, oftentimes surrounding him in his hospital bed, serenading him with the very songs he composed. For me, it was the most beautiful experience to witness and share – a beautiful expression of high regard filled with honor and dignity with which Gene was gifted in the weeks before he died. Everyone celebrated his living, and let him know how much he had marked them by being alive, gratitude and appreciation for all that he gave and had given them, leaving all of them profoundly touched “forever and a day” (as Toni would say).
Another Celebration of Life: A Holding Space Gathering
When Gene went into the light in November of 2012, Toni decided she wanted to give Gene a huge Tribute, which would take place the following March. Two weeks after Gene died, as coach and caregiver, I sensed everyone needed time to vent/share their feelings of not having him in their lives anymore, and waiting to express and share the normal grief they felt for several months more would be indeed challenging.
Therefore, I created a special gathering which I coined as a “Holding Space Gathering”, for people to come and share their feelings. Sixty people showed up at the theatre, and for 6 hours people shared stories that expressed the many ways Gene had impacted their lives. No one wanted to leave. This Holding Space Gathering offered an opportunity for everyone to speak, whereas a funeral would not have offered such a vast possibility.
From this Holding Space Gathering, Gene’s Tribute was born.
The celebration of Gene’s Life: The Musical Tribute
In the following March, we put together a major Tribute production, held at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, where 360 people attended. It was filled with the celebration of Gene’s life through a play Toni wrote, about Gene going to heaven and not wanting to be there without her, and then accepting his fate in heaven – waiting for her. Some of the scenes and songs were taken from previous plays they wrote together and she took her magic wand and wove the stories into a magnificent play, filled with heart, song, and meaning! Songs were performed, and stories were told about his life. Needless to say, it was exquisitely entertaining and touching!
Toni’s Celebration of Life
In November 2015, Toni’s breast cancer spread throughout her body, and her physical body’s life was coming to an end. Doctor’s surmised three months. Three months it turned out to be.
Every year for 30 years, she and Gene threw a great big Xmas Eve party for their entire “village”. She was not strong enough to organize a party and knowing this would be Toni’s last Xmas Eve party, I was determined to give her the BEST LAST Xmas Eve Party EVER! I cooked her favorite foods, created the menu and printed them in glittery Toni style. Toni’s Village contributed their own favorite dishes and desserts, and 200 people showed up to Toni’s house.
Toni knew it was her last party and she was ecstatic at the turnout! It was truly a truly heartfelt experience. Throughout the night, Toni was constantly surrounded by people loving her, letting her know what an important role she played in their lives, making sure she knew that they would always remember her. One of her dear friends told Toni that she was now in her very DNA and that she would always be a part of her, for however long she lived.
It was an honor for me to have taken care of Toni, and to have coached her through the bumpy ride of her final days.
Mission Hospice was also there as our support team and provided an excellent care team for Toni.
Toni’s 3-Day Home Funeral
On February 11, 2016, Toni let go of her last breath, and her body passed away, while her spirit soared to the light, where her lion king and love of her life, Gene, was waiting with open wings.
Sacred Crossings was called to help me facilitate a 3-day Home Funeral. Toni was dressed in a shroud of white silk with a rhinestone belt, that she had chosen, draped across her waist, and even in death she wore a beautiful smile.
Sacred Crossings place a white cardboard casket on the dining room table with markers, chalk, colored pencils and paints. For 3 days, people came over to pay their respects and some even wrote messages and drew beautiful pictures on the casket.
Toni remained in the house as people came to sit vigil and she looked like an angel. The stillness was profound.
The lid of the casket was exquisitely decorated by Roberta and Steve to decorate, and the lid was a piece of art! The inside was lined with sky and clouds, and on the outside of the lid, Roberta had painted two huge 5’ angel wings and glued feathers on them. Toni & Gene’s favorite statement was, “It’s never what you think it is. Anything can happen,” which was painted around all the sides of the lid. It was one of the truly most magnificent things to see, and exactly what Toni would have imagined! She went out in Toni style, glittery, glamorous and simple, all at the same time, with love ushering the way.
Celebrating Toni’s life was easy. She was a most loveable/spiritual human being, filled with kindness and compassion – along with an outrageous sense of humor that eased the bumpy ride so much. We all learned so much about life from her dying experience. She was such a courageous trooper, a great student of the universe, and an inspiring teacher. It was absolutely a blast honoring her in the way we did.
Within 24 hours we created her Funeral program, and 250 people showed up, singing songs, and sharing stories. We had speakers outside and videographers and singing and sharing and, well, the BEST CELEBRATION OF LIFE EVER! This had been my goal in respecting Toni as the glitzy loving actress would have wanted. We were all dressed in white too, according to Toni’s favorite choice color.
Midway into the ceremony, we released the doves I ordered, whilst Toni was placed in the hearse. One dove escaped and flew away, and I still held a female one representing Toni.
Her proud and honored eight pallbearers reverently carried Toni’s beautiful casket outside, and two men from the Neptune Society transferred Toni’s casket into the car, closed the door, and slowly drove away. I then released the dove I held, and it circled us three times before it flew away. It was inexplicably strange and wondrous to witness.
The celebration of her life oozed with an overwhelming sense of love, so much so, you could feel it in the air, filled to capacity, bursting at the seams with a deep sense of gratitude, appreciation, and healing.
Another Celebration of Life for the House!
We not only said goodbye to Toni, but to an era. We were saying goodbye to their memory-filled house too, where she and Gene had shared together for more than 20 years, along with all the people who celebrated 20 years’ previous Xmas parties together, standing around the baby grand piano, while Gene would play… all of us singing their songs from the shows they wrote and other Broadway show tunes.
With respect, we were saying goodbye to the memories of the house… allowing it to be free to become someone’s else’s new home. To commemorate their taste, many items, mostly wine goblets, in her house were subsequently placed on a table for each one to take as a tangible memento. Everyone who attended felt included in the celebration of Toni and Gene’s life and death. Seventy people came by to say goodbye to the house.
Then I created another ritual involving three index cards for each visitor to write a message for the present, for the past, and one dedicated to the future owners of the house.
We placed these different cards in glitzy decorated roasted pans and set them all sailing aflame in the backyard pool. We set them all on fire to transmute the energy. We then all held hands in a circle, in respect and for another’s celebration of life. The healing experiences were felt profoundly!
We all said goodbye to our dear friends and believe me when I tell you, they went out in style. We love you, Toni and Gene Bua!
There are all kinds of ways to celebrate people’s lives: Funerals, Home Funerals, Memorials, Celebrations of Life, Gatherings, Wakes – and privately held remembrances, in addition to the ones mentioned here which I created with the character spirit of Toni imbedded each celebration ritual.
Regardless of beliefs or religion, we are all human beings, no matter what we are all going to die one day. My experience has shown that the sooner we accept that fact, and talk about it, the sooner we actually feel better, and are better prepared because then we are not living our lives riddled with fear or hesitation to talk about ANYTHING! What deeper subject can you talk about that death and die anyway?
A Celebration of Life is an essential ingredient for honoring the human experience. We celebrate everything in our society, and celebrations of life can take place differently all over the world.
Birth and death. Two different states. One is a beginning. One is an end. But are they? Maybe the person who is born died from the other side to come here to be human? Who knows? Maybe the person who died here is being born into another realm/world that awaits him/her with a sense of consciousness that is bigger than we can imagine? Who knows?
What we do know is that while we are alive, we have many opportunities to celebrate each other. Let’s not wait until the end of life to celebrate our lives, while we are living. If it’s at the end of life, let’s make that end of life celebration a most honoring and respectfully joyful one that says goodbye to the loved one.
It’s your life. Enjoy the journey. And, remember, to bring love into everything you do.