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Wouldn’t It Be Better To Be Able To Hear Your Own Eulogies?

elderly woman raising her hands in celebration against a sky backdrop and white roses

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Have you ever imagined what it would be like to attend your own funeral—to be fully conscious as your loved ones express their affection and share their cherished memories of you? It’s not just a daydream for those who choose to have a living funeral, or a unique death ritual where the person of honor is still very much alive and present to experience their own farewell.

While the idea of the living funeral entered the American pop-culture lexicon in 1997, thanks to the bestselling memoir Tuesdays with Morrie—in which writer Mitch Albom shares how his former college professor and mentor Morrie Schwartz hosted his own funeral while dying of ALS—it’s currently having a resurgence.


Experts In This Article

Google searches for the term “living funeral” are on the rise in the United States, hitting similar levels as in the early 2000s, and everywhere from South Korea to the United Kingdom, stories of people hosting their own living funerals are proliferating. Perhaps marking the apex of an emerging trend entering the U.S. cultural canon, the Season 11 premiere of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, in 2021, featured a living funeral ceremony as its main plot hook.

Such ceremonies differ from traditional funerals primarily by enabling the person of honor to participate in the commemoration of their own life, sharing memories with and expressing their wishes to loved ones. This can empower people to take control over how they are remembered and confront their own mortality in a personalized, meaningful way.

While a living funeral can take place at any point in life, in many cases, someone will pursue one after they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In these scenarios, the ceremony allows them to say goodbye to (and hear beautiful words from) their grieving loved ones.

End-of-life nurse educator Olga Nikolajev, RN, founder of Death Doula Ontario Network and DyingMatters.ca, describes the essence of the living funeral as a liminal space—a transitional period wherein the boundaries between the everyday and the sacred blur, and one that can hold deep significance. “People’s attention is more focused and time warps a bit,” she says.

It’s within this liminal space that the core purpose of the living funeral is realized, allowing individuals to reflect, connect, and find meaning in the face of mortality.

What are the origins of the living funeral?

Though it’s tough to pinpoint where, exactly, the living funeral got its start, the practice of memorializing a person’s life while they’re still alive can be traced back to the customs of several indigenous civilizations.

Plenty of Native American tribes including the Lakota Sioux and the Anishinaabe people hold death vigil traditions as people approach the end of life, aiming to bring comfort and lessen pain while the spirit leaves the body. In particular, the Lakota Sioux emphasize reconciling relationships, passing down family heirlooms, and sharing customary meals. Meanwhile, the Anishinaabe engage in end-of-life ceremonies, often incorporating a ceremonial pipe ritual to guide the spirit into the afterlife.

What these indigenous traditions reflect is an intrinsic understanding of the continuity of life and death—the idea that “death and life are two halves of one whole,” says Rian Lussier, virtual memorial services manager at online memorial platform Keeper. While, “historically, we all cared for our dying loved ones, we’ve only become disconnected from…death, dying, and grief by societal changes over the past century,” she says.

“Historically, we all cared for our dying loved ones, [but] we’ve become disconnected from…death, dying, and grief by societal changes.” —Rian Lussier, virtual memorial services manager at Keeper

According to death doula and end-of-life coach Mary Telliano, the introduction of embalming (the preserving of human remains to ward off decomposition) during the American Civil War was a turning point in our disconnection from death. (The process was used to safely transport deceased soldiers’ bodies over long distances.) “This is when mortuaries, funeral homes, undertakers—all of these things became a business,” says Telliano. “Before that, we were born in the home, we died in the home, and we were buried in the backyard.”

In the years since, thanks to urbanization and industrialization, death has only become further institutionalized1 and the process of dying, increasingly medicalized: A 2016 study of more than 450 hospitalized adults found that while 75 percent of people wished to die at home2, 66 percent of those who died in the follow-up period did so in a medical setting.

What Nikolajev suspects is that, at a certain point, we’d become so disconnected from the process of death and dying that the pendulum began to swing back in the opposite direction. The modern-day living funeral harkens back to the way people in indigenous tribes have historically faced death—as an inevitable transition (rather than a dreaded ending) and an opportunity to find meaning in life.

As a deliberate departure from postmortem rituals, the living funeral also challenges the notion that the death of any one person should only be addressed or handled by that person’s loved ones. The concept of seizensō (meaning “funeral while alive” in Japanese) emerged in Japan in the 1990s as a way for an elderly person to host their own funeral, thereby easing the burden that would have fallen on their family members to hold (and pay for) a funeral after their death.

More broadly, the living funeral is becoming a new way to recognize a centuries-old reality—that actively engaging with death can allow you to move more smoothly through the sadness of grief and loss and toward the internal peace of acceptance.

Why are living funerals having a moment?

The rise of the modern-day living funeral is part and parcel of the growing death positivity movement, which aims to help us reconnect with death as an intrinsic part of the cycle of life. “The whole death-positive movement is about dying well—which means that everything has been said, things have been shared, and everyone is as at peace with the transition as they can possibly be,” says Telliano, emphasizing the role of the living funeral in facilitating the above.

“Sometimes folks can feel like talking about death is bringing it closer,” says Lussier, of the longstanding tendency in American culture to avoid the subject of death. “But when we talk about death and dying without sugarcoating it or stepping around it, we can better connect with ourselves and one another.”

“When we talk about death and dying without sugarcoating it or stepping around it, we can better connect with ourselves and one another.” —Lussier

Such psychological benefits of death positivity also reveal its power to help us live a better life, while we still can. In fact, the Global Wellness Institute even named “dying well” a wellness trend in 2019. But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced so many more of us to confront death, it’s never felt more urgent to die well (and make the most of our final chapters).

Facing our own mortality more directly may have made it all the more obvious how disconnected we’d become from natural cycles and prompted many to seek out more meaningful death-related rituals, says Nikolajev, like the living funeral.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of living funerals?

Today’s living funerals are not tied to one particular cultural context, but rather run the spiritual gamut. Anyone hosting one has the agency to design it how they’d like, customizing it to reflect their unique life perspective and values.

In all cases, however, the honoree will be present to hear the words spoken about them, which is something that people often say they wish could be true at traditional funerals, says Lussier.

A living funeral can also serve as a powerful platform for a person to recognize the real impact they’ve made on their loved ones and the world. “Sometimes, people don’t feel like they’ve made an impact,” says Nikolajev. “It’s often through the telling of one’s story and actually bearing witness to the story that they feel they’re being seen, heard, and acknowledged.”

Opportunities for healing and reconciliation with loved ones can also flourish at a living funeral, says Nikolajev, which typically provides a platform for the expression of apologies and other sentiments of closure that might have otherwise remained unsaid.

And a living funeral can keep both the honoree and the attendees engaged with the process of life’s end, says Telliano, guiding people to confront the inevitability of death with grace rather than fear or avoidance. For the ceremony-goers, in particular, facing the transience of life in this way can also serve as the catalyst for personal growth, encouraging them to live more authentically, really appreciate the present moment, and prioritize meaningful connections.

Telliano notes having experienced such growth herself after organizing her own living funeral ceremony for her 40th birthday (largely to deepen her understanding of the service she provides). In particular, she says that as she absorbed stories and expressions of love from the attendees, she felt an internal shift akin to Kundalini energy, a concept in yogic philosophy representing the ascent of dormant spiritual energy from the base of the spine.

“That shaking inside of me I felt was shifting something in me,” says Telliano. “I still can’t pinpoint exactly what it was.” At the event, she decided to include a haircutting ceremony, symbolizing a shedding and a fresh start. And afterward, she says she had a newfound appreciation for her friends and family and the ways her relationships have evolved over time.

Even so, the living funeral may not be an ideal practice for everyone. Telliano cautions that for some terminally ill individuals uncomfortable with facing their own mortality or navigating intense emotions, these ceremonies can be triggering or overwhelming. In this case, it may be worth working with a death doula and taking a slower and more sequential approach to exploring the territory of death, rather than hosting a living funeral.

It’s also worth noting that even when a living funeral effectively honors a person’s life and allows them to participate in their own memorialization, it still may not suffice as a replacement for a traditional funeral (once they die). Their loved ones may still want or need this postmortem ritual to support them through the grief of their loss.

What happens at a living funeral, and how do you plan one?

Typically, a living funeral looks more like a party than, well, a funeral. And it’s best to work with a death doula—as you would work with a funeral director in the case of a traditional funeral—to plan a living funeral that is respectful of the honoree’s cultural and personal beliefs and that meaningfully celebrates their life.

To start, Lussier advises defining the key message you wish to convey. For example, is it a celebration of life, a party with all of their favorite things, or a tender gathering for heart-to-heart conversations? “Let that steer your decision-making process on the who, what, when, where, and how,” she says.

After all, honoring a person’s legacy can take many forms. “Maybe it means hosting a living funeral at the trusty neighborhood bowling alley where the honoree played in a league for decades, or it means having a small gathering at home, where all of the guests share a memory [of the honoree] that always makes them smile,” says Lussier. At one living funeral she hosted for a grandmother who loved cooking, each of the guests brought their favorite recipe of hers. “It meant the world to her to see her legacy returned to her in this way,” says Lussier.

In any case, a living funeral does not need to be expensive or elaborate. It’s far more important for it to feel meaningful to the honoree, says Lussier. Reflecting on the living funerals she’s hosted, she says, “What they all share in common is meeting people on their terms, welcoming tears and laughter equally, and being deeply personalized to the honoree.”

The idea is for the person of the hour to recognize the significance of their life’s story through the impact it’s had on others, and in so doing, find the beauty—and even the joy—in moving through their final chapters.

Citations
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  1. Beard, Virginia R, and William C Burger. “Change and Innovation in the Funeral Industry.” Omega vol. 75,1 (2017): 47-68. doi:10.1177/0030222815612605
  2. Fischer, Stacy et al. “Where do you want to spend your last days of life? Low concordance between preferred and actual site of death among hospitalized adults.” Journal of hospital medicine vol. 8,4 (2013): 178-83. doi:10.1002/jhm.2018
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