There seems to be a growing interest in the concept of a ‘living funeral’, that is holding a goodbye life celebration BEFORE a death occurs. Funerals have traditionally been somber events that occur once a person has died, an event for surviving family and friends to pay their last respects. Funerals often tend to be more about what the living (surviving family) want, rather than what the deceased would have preferred, especially if no funeral provision or will was in place.
So, why not host an event as a pre-funeral and have the chance to say goodbyes and have the exact kind of tribute celebration you would choose for yourself?
Why would someone choose to hold a living funeral?
There are several reasons why more folks are opting to host a living funeral. The funeral industry is moving through an epoch now. We are moving away from an era of tradition and beginning to embrace the unconventional. Baby boomers and Generation X’s are beginning to make their own funeral plans or help plan the funerals of their parents. As generations, these both have a different approach to the conventional, always being on the forefront of challenging the norms as they have moved through life events.
The significance of religion as part of a funeral ritual is potentially diminishing for some Americans, and more are opting for personalized rituals. In this way, a living funeral, can be unconventional and creative. It does not have to be a formal affair with black suits and sad faces. We have already witnessed a trend towards life celebration funeral events over the last decade, and conducting a living funeral, is just taking this one step further.
Now a person can choose to host their own life celebration living funeral by gathering family and friends together, and having a final chance to see, and share, with loved ones. The reason for holding a living funeral is typically for a person who is elderly or terminally ill with knowledge that their death is approaching. He or she feels that, with the knowledge of their death impending, they would prefer to host a living funeral to have an opportunity to say goodbye to those they love before they pass.
What format does a living funeral take?
A living funeral can take whatever format you choose. It is generally organized as a social gathering for families and friends, and does not have to be formal, or take place in a ‘usual’ funeral location. It can be held in any location and be as creative as required.
Examples of living funerals in culture
One of the most famous living funerals in popular culture is that depicted by the book and movie Tuesdays with Morrie. The book topped the New York Times Best Sellers in 2000 and is a memoir of Mitch Albom’s time spent with his 78-year old sociology professor who was dying from ALS. The book explores the transcendence of experiencing the acceptance of death and attempts to challenge the reader that “dying and death are natural processes and need to be acknowledged for what they are — natural events.” 
In Japan, it became popularized during the 1990’s to hold living funerals, known as seizenso, it was a way that elders could remove the burden from their children. They wanted to take away the stress for their family and could typically feel ashamed of their failing body. The notion of the living funeral meant that they expected nothing from their family when they passed…including holding (and paying for) a funeral.
In January of 2018, The Nikkei  featured the story of Japanese businessman Satoru Anzaki, who with a terminal condition at 80 years old, decided to host his own living funeral before his death to be able to see, and thank, all those who had played a role in his life.
Similarly, in February a story from the UK  reported about a 93-year old grandmother, Ethel Leather (photo below), who opted to host her own funeral as a chance to have a grand party with her family and friends as she wanted not to miss her funeral.
Get Low (2009) is the movie that depicts the folklore and mythology around Tennessee hermit, Felix Bush, and his plan to host his own funeral as he realizes his health is failing. His initial notion for hosting his funeral is that he wants to hear all the stories that the local folks would tell about him at his funeral. But then it emerges that he has a burdening secret he has held for 40 years and desires to gather everyone together to disclose his secret and ask forgiveness.
What is the etiquette for a living funeral?
There is no formal etiquette for a living funeral. Opting to hold a living funeral is challenging the norm in culture today, and therefore there is no stereotypical notion of what a living funeral should be. Satoru Anzaki, choose to host his pre-funeral as a typical life event function, inviting all his guests and greeting all as they arrived, almost similar to a wedding event function. Guests were invited to bring photos of their experiences with Anzaki and tell stories of their memories of him. Anzaki was known to “value human relationships more than anything else”, and this was his final chance to honor this.
What about the role of the funeral home?
A funeral home does not necessarily have a role to play in a pre-funeral or living funeral. No death has yet occurred, no sanitary services are required or no legal permits or paperwork pertaining to a dead body. A pre-funeral is merely the hosting of a life event, and like other life events such as births, baptisms and marriages, a living funeral can beheld at a function location or at home.
The funeral industry is already being challenged in its role in death care in society right now, with some people moving away from traditional funerals and the need to utilize a funeral director to host the memorialization. As the cremation rate continues to increase, we are witnessing more families opting to conduct a simple cremation at death, and then arrange their own memorialization event at a later date. It is considered by some the division of the funeral profession into 2 schisms: disposition and memorialization.
Maybe the notion of the pre-funeral takes this one step further by allowing the family to control the memorialization aspect before utilizing the funeral home for the disposition of the deceased?
How much does a living funeral cost?
As much as you would want to spend, but certainly a lot less than holding a full traditional funeral service. For those that are aware of their own mortality and wish to reduce the financial burden on their family, but still wish to host a gathering of family and friends, it can be arranged simply and for little cost.
For now, the living funeral remains a concept that exists on the fringes of culture. It is perceived as unconventional and breaking with the accepted life rituals that structure our society. But will this change? Aside from the examples depicted here, more of my friends, acquaintances and peers talk about an acceptance that our attitudes to death care, and how we live our lives today, our changing.
- Masters, J. L. (2003). THURSDAYS WITH MORRIE: THE USE OF CONTEMPORARY LITERATUREIN A DEATH AND DYING COURSE. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 47(3), 245-252.
- A party before dying: Japanese are embracing the logic of the ‘pre-funeral’
- Great-grandmother, 93, will attend her own funeral before she’s even dead