Planning a Celebration of Life

Celebration Of Life


Planning a celebration of life is usually something that needs to be done quickly, and often, a grieving family may find it difficult to put together a well thought out celebration. However, you can still create a meaningful get together or ceremony that honors your loved one. Here’s how.John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Maureen Woodman, a wedding and event planner for on and off-site catered events at The Essex Room, in Essex, Massachusetts. Today we’re talking about planning a celebration of life. Welcome Maureen.

Maureen Woodman: Hi, John. Thanks for having me.

Planning a Celebration of Life

John Maher: Sure. So Maureen, how does someone go about finding you for a celebration of life event?

Maureen Woodman: This is something that we’ve been doing at The Essex Room for quite a few years, but in the last 10 years, we’ve definitely seen a surge of celebration of life, because a lot best online casinos of people aren’t necessarily having a funeral at a wake or a funeral home, or they don’t have a tie to a religion like they used to; so you might not see a ceremony at a church. A lot of people aren’t being buried anymore. A lot of people are being cremated only. They don’t have a plot or they don’t choose to go that way. They’d rather be put out in the water or something.

It’s definitely a change in my lifetime over the last 35 years of what’s happened there. Most of our connections are with the local funeral homes because our function hall is so large, it’s a great place to have a lot of people, if it’s necessary. We have plenty of parking and it’s located really well on Cape End [and close] to probably about 15 funeral homes. The access to get there is easy. Because remember, most of the people that are coming for a funeral [are local]. Usually the funeral director may call me and reach out and give me somebody’s name that’s involved in the funeral party, but not necessarily the closest person to the person that passed away. There’s seems to be somebody that’s helping them out and they would be the connection.

How to Plan a Celebration of Life Event Quickly

John Maher: Okay. The family doesn’t normally have a lot of time to prepare for an event like that. How easy is it to put together a celebration of life event that is probably at the last minute and with the least amount of trouble for the family? Maybe, walk me through what I would do if someone in my family has passed away and I want to schedule a celebration of life event.

Maureen Woodman: We have a template available that we use that asks some really quick questions to make this turnover. Because that’s usually what happens, you pretty much are putting up a celebration of life in 48 hours. You have to make sure the room’s available, that’s the first call. Can you do it this day? Then they have to coordinate if there’s a church or if there is a wake at a funeral home. And once that’s done, we ask them to come in and we have a set menu that we use on all of our funerals. You can have whatever you want, but we know what people pretty much like. And then we’ll go over a list of questions, “Are you going to have any kind of video going? Or music?” Or “Do you have a lot of photos,” or “Are you going to have a lot of easels put up?” We’ll ask, “Do you want a guest book,” “Are you going to have a receiving line,” “How many people are in the immediate party,” etc. to make sure we reserve the tables for the family. We also use the bride’s room for the family, so that they can go in there and compose themselves. A lot of times when they come back from the actual burial, it can be very, very emotional. They need to calm down before they go back out into the room.

John Maher: Right. They don’t want to jump right into having to meet and greet people.

Maureen Woodman: The bride’s room at The Essex Room really works out for a nice place for the family to kind of pull themselves together and then go back out, and try to deal with what is in front of them. Especially if it’s a sudden death, they’re just exhausted. Our job is to take care of them. Hold their hand, get them through the process. Make sure that they have their privacy but also that we’re there for them if something arises. Sometimes they have bars, sometimes they don’t. I don’t see a trend where there’s a lot of alcohol at the funerals. It’s not like the old days, it’s an Irish wake and everyone is getting drunk.

John Maher: It’s not so much of a party atmosphere.

Maureen Woodman: No, it is not like that anymore. As far as decor, we usually go with a very straight cream or ivory. We will ask them if the person that passed away had a favorite color or something. We also use a signboard, which is outside. We would ask them what they wanted to put up, use their nickname or whatever. Usually that’s what it would say, “Celebrating the Life of Maureen Woodman Today.” That’s how we would do that. We also coordinate with the florist. We find out the florist that they’re using and we may tie the color in if we did some flowers on the table. Or, if they bring some flowers back from the funeral or a church, we would put them around and have everything gathered for the family.

How a Celebration of Life Differs from Other Types of Events

John: Okay and how does a celebration of life event differ from other events that you might host or cater?

Maureen: I would say that the food is not a priority, the people are priority. I would say that the feeling in the room is more somber, it’s very emotional. And it’s a sad time and we’re trying to just kind of be there, but we’re really in background. It’s a very private time; you don’t want to be in somebody’s moment for this. It’s not about you, it’s really about them. I think the feeling is quieter, as you would imagine. Sometimes if there’s music that goes with a slideshow, there would be a little bit of background but a lot of times until the people actually get in there, I feel there is a very uncomfortable silence that you normally would not feel in the function hall when you’re doing preparation. It’s just a very quiet, eerie feeling. It’s respectful, I think it’s more of a respectful feeling and it’s very noticeable when you work it.

John: You mentioned that these days when people maybe are not having a wake or even a funeral service at a church, maybe you do a receiving line or something like that at the function hall. Is that something that you do?

Maureen: Sure. We set up a guest book just like you’d have at a funeral home. We would set the receiving line up. Sometimes if the person’s cremated, we would actually set up the table with the urn right there and people would go through the line. And then other times we’ve had amazing musicians come in and they actually get up on the podium, everyone speaks, they’ll want to do just like it is at a church and then people will play their music. They’ll come in and do the guitar or the piano or the keyboard. We’ve done a whole bunch of different things. But really, it’s trying to get it together quick. We’ve printed all the booklets for people, and the other thing is we never know how many people are coming, that’s the biggest thing.

You don’t have an invited guest list, one of the hardest things is we try to figure out the day the person died, where it falls during the work week and we try to help them gauge the count that they’re going to have because it’s very difficult. And we always have extra food because if another hundred people showed up. But what we find is when there’s a wake and a funeral mass and then the party, we don’t get as many people. When there’s just the celebration of life, we seem to get more people.

John: Right because it’s sort of taken the place of that wake or that funeral.

Maureen: Yes, or if there’s a church ceremony and then the after party from the church, we won’t get as many. But when it’s just an all in celebration of life, we could have upwards of 300 people.

John: Right. Do you find that you can start to gauge the number of people too by talking to the family and finding out how young or old are they? Younger people when they pass tend to get more people who are going to the funeral because they have people that they’re working with, so you have all those work people. Depending on what they do for a job, if they were a teacher, then you end up getting all the people that they worked with at the school system or even students of theirs or past students and that can add up. So can you sort of help to gauge the number of people based on what you know about the person who’s passed away?

Maureen: I think we do very well on the amount of people from our experience. We will ask those questions and we’ll try to find that family member that’s close enough to kind of give us an idea, but again, we’ve done this so much that exactly what you just said [helps us estimate the number of people.] The way the person passed or the age of the person, the job if they worked, if they had a lot of children, grandchildren, that’s kind of how we get it. And it’s really just based on experience. Like I said, we’ve been doing this for well over 30 years.

John: Right. What types of food or menus does a family typically look for in a celebration of life event? You mentioned before that you have sort of a standard menu that you tend to recommend for this from past experiences. Is that what people typically go with?

Maureen: Sometimes, like anything else, you can get all over the map but the traditional menu would be an array of sandwiches, clam chowder, some kind of a green salad, maybe a fruit salad, and the potato chips, all the condiments and then cookies and brownies and coffee. That really seems to be the menu that most of the people go with. And then of course, if there’s some favorite food that the person likes, we can always make that. The other thing that happens quite often, which is completely different than any other event, is that when people pass away, people like to make food. One thing we’ll do for you is we’ll set up the night before where people that are going to go can drop off their food. We’ll take their name. They can bring it on their pretty dish. We actually tape their name on the bottom of the dish so we can put out the desserts afterwards and then make sure that you have the name and address of who gave that to you so that you can do your Thank You note. We really don’t do anything else. We don’t usually bring food in from outside, but with a celebration of life, it seems to be very important. And then at the end of the celebration, one thing we do for the family is we’ll pack up all the food so that they can go home with something because they are exhausted.

John: Right. The last thing that they want to think about is having to cook dinner that night.

Maureen: Yes. They are exhausted. They have been through it. They have a tendency to stay – the immediate family always seems to stay an additional 45 minutes even though we are cleaning up the room and I feel like they just start to breathe. And then they go into the grieving process. They are exhausted.

John: Great, that’s really good information. I appreciate you speaking with me today Maureen.

Maureen: Thanks John. Thanks for having me.

John: And for more information you can visit The Essex Room website at or call in 978-768-7335.