The Showdown: Traditional Funerals vs. Life Celebrations

An engaging, invigorating and nonetheless entertaining controversy has begun! We started a series on Baby Boomers called “The Ugly Truth: Baby Boomers’ Thoughts on Funeral Service”. The response was SO overwhelming, we immediately followed up with a post on what the families of today actually expect in a funeral service – check out that blog post here.

There is a huge gap between the funeral professionals who believe a personalized service is valuable versus the funeral professionals who believe a traditional funeral is still important to families.

So, who’s right? We’ll leave it up to you to decide after reading these arguments from funeral professionals across the country:

These funeral professionals believe in LIFE CELEBRATIONS…

“Quite frankly, I don’t believe the consumer has ever wanted a traditional funeral. In past generations it was just what people did when someone died. They went through the motions of a traditional funeral but nothing of value happened. In many ways, the funeral director is to blame. We simply provided cookie-cutter traditional funerals and went through the motions ourselves. If we had been applying the elements of today’s healthy celebration of life services, to the traditional funeral of yesteryear, we might not even be having this discussion. In the past, families did not realize they had choices, other than a traditional funeral, until choices were presented with the growth of cremation and memorial societies.”

Rick Golke, Funeral Consultant

“I can’t even tell you how many people have really regretted opting for a clergy member, after sitting through their dearly beloved’s service–where a very obvious presentation of a “cookie cutter” service was made even more impersonal. In these situations, not only was the focus of the content less on the deceased than on the organized religion, but whatever was included was vague and obviously without genuine representation of the life who actually lived and loved. This realization comes after sitting through my Celebrant-led services. My services will include religious ritual and reference, when the family members request that I do so– and some do.”

April Simanoff, Certified Funeral Celebrant, Everlasting Tributes

“I feel that personalization is key, and that the family should be in the drivers seat. Its a funeral director’s job to help direct the family in the right direction for that particular family. If a director never mentions personalization then that family is probably never going to know the many options they have to personalize their loved ones service.”

Jamie Dalfero

“When my brother died it was a 5 day celebration of his life with people coming in and out telling us the stories we needed to hear to start the healing process. The stories of joy and of his inspiration in the lives of those he touched. After the 5 days of non-stop Irish celebrating we were quite ready to get on with our own lives the best we could.”

Claire Carrano, Health Aid and Caregiver, Home Health Aid

“When my grandfather passed in 1987, we had our own version of an Irish wake (yes we are Irish). We had the funeral home for two full days. The third day was broken up for a high mass in the morning and then the burial. We laughed, cried and caught up with family members we had not seen in quite some time. And yes, we drank and some of us drank heavily! But what I was left with was the meaning of ‘eternal life’. We talked about him, remembered things he did, how he used to make us laugh, what he taught us, and we got to learn how he affected other members of our family and what he meant to them. We were blessed as he passed at 99 years and 6 months. He was also the most touched corpse at any funeral I had ever been to. We all could not keep our hands off him. It was the send off he always wanted and we made sure to do it right. In our family, this is how we say goodbye and how we will always say goodbye – with days of friends and family!”

Maureen Walton, President, The Cemetery Exchange LLC

“Having a service without talking about that life is not working. [By] speaking about the life and using family input and participation, so much more can be done for a wonderful ceremony that includes space for laughter, tears and hope for healing.”

Cozette Stoltzfus, Funeral Celebrant, Cozette Stoltzfus Life-Cycle

These funeral professionals believe in TRADITIONAL funerals…

“I read these things all the time but in my experience, they have not come to pass. Maybe it’s just the area I live and work in but people here still seem to be very traditional about what they want. I always explain the various options and point out that we can do anything (within the law, of course) that would make their loved ones service more personal and a better reflection of who they were, but most still choose the traditional route. Last year I started making notes about our offerings compared to what people chose and I found some interesting things of my own.

1. One thing most did want was a DVD slide show.

2. The life story register books were no better accepted than the old standard. Out of the 116 full services we did last year, 6 chose the life story register book (there is no price difference). The rest said they would just be storing it in the closet anyway.

3. Funeral webcasting has been well received with 72 families choosing to webcast the service for the benefit of those who could not attend. Again we do not charge extra for webcasting.

4. When I suggested that families bring in personal mementos of their loved one to create a memory table, 22 families did. The rest said it was either too much trouble or they were afraid things would get lost.

5. All 116 families wanted a religious service officiated by a minister; even those who did not regularly attend church.

6. When asked about family and/or friends speaking at the service, 26 families had people who did. The rest wanted the minister to maintain complete control.

7. No families wanted anything out of the ordinary. Most felt the funeral was a sacred event and should be approached as such.

8. Food service after the funeral was the norm but not one family wanted to use our facilities for that, even though we have a large facility and are well equipped to provide such. They all wanted to go to a family member’s home or their church for the reception. 9. We did a total of 22 cremations last year of which two opted for full services, three opted for a memorial service at the funeral home, and the rest were direct welfare due to financial issues. Of all cremations, only one of the full service cremations was done because that was the choice of the deceased and family. All the rest had a financial hardship component.”

Shane Ritchie, Funeral Director and Embalmer, Beard Mortuary

“I believe that we need to emphasize the traditional Christian funeral, especially if the deceased and his family profess Christianity. We need to emphasize church funerals and the use of sacred music as oppose to secular music. Have we forgotten where we came from? Is our society becoming pagan? We need to conduct funerals in a professional manner. Let us keep our profession respectable.”

Gary J. Cumming, Funeral Director, Duskcas Funeral Home

“Having the body of the deceased at the funeral is the most personalized a service can possibly be. All the trinkets are just window dressing.”

Shane Ritchie, Funeral Director and Embalmer, Beard Mortuary

“The funeral is not about YOU. The funeral is meant to help a family move on from the worst day of their lives. Yes it is sad. Death is SAD. It is meant to bring closure and comfort, seeing people come to a loved one’s visitation or funeral is to bring support and let the family know they are not alone in their grieving. There is more to a funeral than just burying a body. In the end, the traditional funeral helps your friends and you (the family) move on from a loss.”

– James Posey


And these funeral professionals are somewhere in the middle…

“We can adapt to provide families with funerals they find value in by offering more choices. Personalization is the key. If the family feels that they are in the drivers seat, they tend to be satisfied. Let the family set the tone, traditional or non-traditional. If they want a beer in dad’s hand, while AC/DC is playing, then give it to them. If they want dad’s Harley jacket draped over his Harley Davidson motorcycle sitting in the corner of the room, then do it. Or, if a family wants the traditional hymns played by an organist, with tissues on every other chair, then that is what they get. Pull pictures together for a DVD to be played on the screen in the corner of the room. However, the family chooses to grieve the loss or celebrate the life, that is how it must be done. We, as funeral directors, need to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. If they don’t attend church and have no desire for us to call a Pastor for them, then help them with finding a Celebrant instead.”

Linda Newnum, Funeral Director

“As with most things in life, I find it’s a balance. Some deaths are very sudden or shocking, or the person was young, and the family needs something more balanced on the sad and difficult side.

The family has to guide us always, it’s lovely to be able to tell lots of positive stories and it’s heartwarming to find those things which connect us all. There is loss, and the challenge in any type of service/ceremony is to address this in the most effective way for the family, that doesn’t take over from the joy of a life well lived, the challenges overcome, the struggles of day-to-day life. But, I advise families to let people have a weep if they want without drowning. At the end of the day, all of us are human, fragile and glorious.”

Sue Goodrum, Independent Funeral Celebrant

“As a funeral director and Baby Boomer I see the value of both. I too enjoy a funeral that depicts the life of the individual, good and not so good, because that was who he or she was. However, I also see the need of making people realize they have lost someone they really loved and that he or she is no longer with us. People need to confront their grief and not try to smooth it over by “celebration” because in most cases the grief will re-surface, perhaps even years later.

The absolute best eulogy I ever heard was from a common, blue collared, genuine, hard-working guy honoring the life of his friend. He started out telling about a very funny incident in the person’s life, then moved into a rather sad if not tragic event. He altered back and forth, between happy and sad situations, for five minutes or so. He had the people attending the funeral in stitches, then he had them crying, but he ended on a very positive note. He enabled people, not only to confront their grief, but to look at the positive side–life does continue and the memory of this person has helped make us who we are. The traditional aspect of funeral service does make people confront their grief, but I believe it is also very important to celebrate the highs and lows of the deceased’s life because that is who he or she was.”

– Roger Glenn

So who is right or wrong?

I think the better question here might be: is there a right or wrong?  My answer to that question is NO. There is one recurring theme in these comments that I believe is the most important lesson we can learn. It’s that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what YOU, the funeral director wants. It matters what your families want. It’s up to them to guide you. It’s clear that many Baby Boomers are steering away from the traditions we’ve become used to over the years.

However, there are still some who don’t opt for any sort of personalization at their funeral. I think what’s important here is that we offer families a service that’s as meaningful as it is accurate, as happy as it is sad, and one that’s as hopeful as it is heart throbbing. Life is  multi-dimensional. and it doesn’t matter how you remember it, so long as it is meaningful.

What’s your opinion on the debate? Tell us in the comments below!


Joe Joachim


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  1. Rowena L. Langston

    It’s not about US……its about the DECEASED and what the Family wants for their Loved one! I ALWAYS go to the family with the idea of Personalized Services and Celebrations of lives lived. If they want their clergy present, fine if they want a live jazz band, fine, if they want a Funeral Dirge, fine….I’ve had services at The Zoo, the Beach for a Scattering of Cremains, Funeral Dirge at the Cemetery, at the Conservatory, and,at the Home of the deceased! These were the request of family or the prior request of the now deceased! In each instance, the celebrations were memorable and the families were completely satisfied! We are ALL CELEBRANTS! We should ALWAYS be mindful of the fact that we are there to PROVIDE A FUNERAL SERVICE TO FAMILIES AND ADHERE TO THE WISHES OF THESE FAMILIES, WHO PAY US QUITE HANDSOMELY TO DO SO! It’s not about what WE WANT, it’s about the Deceased and what THEY WANT and what their family chooses as a way to Memorialize their Loved One.

  2. Adrienne Crowther

    I write from the perspective of both a family member of a loved one, and a supplier to the funeral industry. When my husband died in 2009, my children, his sister, and her children spent a week creating and planning a beautiful memorial service in our yard. We chose his favorite music, our favorite photos of him throughout his life, passages from his favorite readings, and more. Friends and family spoke at the memorial. Some of them were officially part of the program, while others felt moved to speak in an improvisational way. There were tears, yelps of laughter, and moments of silence, all of which were appropriate. It completely reflected the essence of his character and personality, and those in attendance were greatly affected by the tribute.

    I’ve planned two other memorial services since then – both very personal, and each one, unique. Each memorial service was beautiful and offered a sense of closure for everyone.

    As a supplier, I am committed to offering unique, personalized cremation urns and memorials, through my website, Shine On Brightly, at Customers tell me on a daily basis that they weren’t able to find something unique in their searches, which are sometimes through the funeral home, and sometimes online. Today’s consumer is accustomed to online presence, and often, the grieving family is researching options online. When they come across the Shine On Brightly collection, they are pleasantly relieved to find something that is not mass-produced, nor cookie cutter. As a babyboomer, I tend to agree that, now that consumers have so many options, for the most part, they are not interested in the traditional funeral. People want to honor their loved ones. Everyone is unique in personality, character, interests, and more. Every celebration or tribute should be that unique.

  3. William myers

    I see the funeral director as a tour guide. We throw out the options and the family decides. However there is one thing that you cannot overlook; the minister. Most people have services at the church building. Most congregations have rules. What people do before and after is their business. Once they step into the assembly hall, the minister becomes the guide.

    Further, I agree that a celebration of life is a good thing. First, it places the emphasis on the past life of our loved ones. Man does not have the right to judge the dead. That is God’s turf. Yet we have every right to remember our loved ones.

    Second, sharing at a funeral allows friends and family to express their joys and grief to others.

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  6. donna sophia

    I don’t want my survivors to pay for a lengthy obituary notice written by a stranger who pumped and grilled them into spilling their guts about pets and silly nicknames. It’s a big moneymaker for newspapers; friends and family know about my life; strangers don’t care and won’t read it. No memorial trinkets handed out to be tossed when the service is over. What a waste of money. Donate to a charity instead of paying for those unnecessary things. One photo will suffice. A closed casket and visitation two hours before the service. or a private service at the gravesite will work. I prefer cremation but my spouse has already told me I didn’t have a choice. I will see to it that my spouse has the kind of funeral he wants and hope he respects my choice. It isn’t always about what the survivors.