Hip Elderly WomanThe commonly repeated axiom that funerals benefit the living more than the dead may have some truth to it, especially if you consider loved ones’ need for closure. Yet what if you hold a funeral for someone while he or she is still alive? As strange as this may sound, some people living well into old age or contending with a terminal illness have these celebrations to allow friends and family to say goodbye while they’re still around.

The Story of Morrie Schwartz  

One early documented instance of a living funeral comes from “Tuesdays With Morrie,” a 1997 book by journalist Mitch Albom. The subject of the memoir was Morrie Schwartz, a retired Brandeis University sociology professor with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the same disease that impacted renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Unlike Hawking, who lived for an additional five decades after his diagnosis at age 21, Schwartz survived only a year after being informed by doctors that his ALS prognosis was terminal.  

Was it happenstance or larger forces ensuring that Schwartz’s story made it into print? The answer to that question may never be certain. However, a 2015 Boston Globe write-up details that Albom contacted Schwartz after watching a 1995 broadcast of Nightline. Journalist Ted Koppel interviewed Schwartz about the prospect of dying from ALS. Stunned, Albom contacted his old professor and over 16 visits, the two had extended conversations about life and death.

An archived New York Times piece excerpts a portion of the book in which Albom documents a “living funeral” held in honor of Schwartz. Inspired by his desire to express love and gratitude to those around him and concerned he’d die without having that chance, Schwartz assembled a group of his closest family and friends. Albom revealed that the attendees paid tribute to their friend, through tears and laughter, and added, “All the heartfelt things we never get to say to those we love, Morrie said that day.”

Elements of a Living Funeral

Nearly two decades after Morrie Schwartz’ Nightline interview, a March 2016 article in the Toronto Star profiled 79-year-old Toronto resident Grace Stephens, another individual who had a living funeral. Described by Star writer Lauren Pelley as “coping with cancer … [but] still full of life,” Stephens spent a December afternoon at the city’s prestigious Fairmont Royal York hotel surrounded by her loved ones. The event included afternoon tea, plenty of laughter, swapping stories, chitchat about food from her native Guyana, and heartfelt thanks from friends and relatives.

Whether you’re arranging your own celebration or an event on behalf of a loved one, it’s vital to ensure a warm, emotionally supportive atmosphere. After describing Stephens’ gathering, Pelley passed on some planning advice from local funeral industry experts:

  • Defer to the guest of honor’s wishes
  • Pay attention to everyone’s comfort levels
  • Consider a non-traditional approach
  • Ask guests to avoid confrontations or unsettling “confessions”

The point of a “living funeral” is to create a positive experience, so it’s vital to follow these best practices and craft an event that the person being honored will enjoy. Some unconventional versions described by Pelley include a boathouse celebration for a rowing enthusiast and a spa day for a beauty stylist and her closest companions.

Expressing Warm Wishes While They’re Here

Living funerals have gained steam in Japan since the 1990s, when elderly individuals started holding them to say goodbye to their children and grandchildren. Stephens summarized the reasons behind these events when speaking to Pelley for the 2016 Toronto Star piece. “Try to tell them [how wonderful they are] when they’re here and they can hear it — and they can thank you.” As people take charge of how they want to be remembered, they make plans to share love and gratitude with their friends and relatives while they’re still alive.

Category: Funeral Loss

funeral culture grief

Add Your Comment

To post a comment you must log in first.
You may alternatively login with your credentials, below.