What is a Life Celebrant?

Susan E. Perry, LFSP

A Life Celebrant has become a popular choice for families when faced with the decision to honor a loved one. Celebrants will sit with loved ones in the days prior to a service and listen to stories and interests. Then they create a personalized service based on the individual and their beliefs. The concept of a Life Celebrant is finally becoming more popular in our culture but has been a normalcy in other parts of the world for quite some time. They have been a very strong alternative for those that aren’t very religious and a great supplement for those that worship regularly. Life Celebrants have had a part in the “Celebration of Life” movement when services are announced and they differ from a traditional religious ceremony without a lot of personal touches.

You may have wondered if a “Celebration of Life” means a ‘happier’ alternative to a funeral or memorial service? Not really, it is the concept that the gathering is more about the person’s life than anything else. A death is always sad, no matter the person’s age, whether it was “expected” or not, under any circumstance. The goal of a gathering at the end of a life is for everyone to reflect on that person and cherish what they meant to the people that love them.

Altmeyer Funeral Home was the first to have certified Life Celebrants on staff in Coastal Virginia. We send a lot of our directors to get specific training and certification to be a Life Celebrant. I was granted to attend this experience by the Altmeyer’s and it has allowed me to serve our families better than I could have hoped for. The training is offered by Insight Books, led by two dedicated professionals, author Doug Manning and professor Glenda Stansbury.

I signed up and went down to Memphis, TN where we camped out in this theater workshop for three days. We learned to capture special moments about a person’s life, write eulogies and make a ceremony meaningful. At the end of the training, we spoke and officiated a life celebration while being critiqued by peers in the profession from all over the country. Of course, speaking in public and writing comes with experience but we were given a path that came with more experience than most could achieve in a lifetime of serving. As a funeral home, offering life celebrants to families and getting the staff these certifications added tremendous value to what we could offer. This training helps our funeral directors pick up on the details that make a service special. It’s also an important process in pre-arrangements when we work with an individual to achieve their goals.

Since my time in Memphis, I have had the honor of sitting down with many families in preparation for their loved one’s service. They tell their stories and they share their loved one with me. The good times and bad times. I hear about triumphs and the things that were important. We laugh, we cry and we reflect.  It’s healing for them and it gives us all a chance to think about the upcoming service and what they want to be included, what they are certain needs to be said. Then the stories are woven into a tapestry that tells a person’s story in a way that is relatable for everyone and the details are incorporated into an experience.

It is very helpful for families that find themselves without a local clergy or church. It gives them the option to have a meaningful service. A ceremony, whether religious or not, helps in a lot of ways after suffering a loss and has in all civilizations throughout history. It is not just associated with religion. It is so important to publicly acknowledge a loss so that the family and friends can receive the support they need. During this important gathering, like in the stages of planning, we all might cry, we all might laugh, and certainly we reflect on someone we cared about. If the person was into motorcycles, we might have a motorcycle in the chapel. If they liked the ocean, we might pass out shells after the service as a token to remember their loved one. Their music is played, their life experience is shared.

The result is a professional service with the words, music and phrases that will mean the most to everyone there. Every gathering is unique, that is what is so incredible. We all go home knowing that we did everything possible to create a healing and memorable experience. That is what it’s about and hopefully it begins a journey of healing that allows these folks to adjust to their new circumstances.

Here are some common questions people have in regards to a life celebration, if you have more, please feel free to contact the funeral home or your funeral director:

Does a life celebration eliminate religion from a service?

Absolutely not. It depends on the wants, beliefs and needs of the family or individual. Even if they don’t have a local clergy, we often will be asked for certain scriptures to be read if the family requests it.

Does it matter if they will be buried or cremated?

No. Burial or cremation is only the disposition of the remains to be at rest. A ceremony and a healing experience can be had regardless of a person’s disposition.

What’s the difference between a memorial, funeral service and a celebration of life?

Nothing really, it is just a name. A funeral service indicates that the individual’s body will be present in a casket. A memorial service indicates that the body will not be present. In a celebration of life- either is possible. Some choose to call it a life celebration because that is what they want to achieve at the service- thwarting focus from the disposition or casket and to honoring them. It’s a more modern term that let’s them make it what they want. Memorial or Funeral services can achieve the same experience. People want to do something different, something true to the individual and that’s what we do.

Can you have military honors, masonic rites and other ceremonious traditions at a life celebration?

Yes. A life celebration incorporates all of these.


Susan Perry is a certified life celebrant and funeral director in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She may be contacted through Altmeyer Funeral Home at 757-422-4000 or her email sperry@altmeyer.com