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Life celebrations say goodbye to loved ones in high style

The John M.S. Lecky UBC Boathouse in Richmond, B.C., created a Celebration of Life rental package about a year ago.

Dan Stone & Kathleen Wong/Stone Photography

When Rachel Bland was asked to plan an event honouring the late director of a non-profit organization, she organized an art gallery cocktail reception where guests nibbled canapés while flat screens ran footage of his community work. Likewise, a special celebration for a British Columbia lumber mill president was held at a local pub and featured his preferred bar snacks, a beer tasting and a band that played his favourite tunes.

Ms. Bland, a meeting and event planner whose North Vancouver company, Radiant Events, plans a half-dozen such gatherings each year, notes a small but growing demand for her professional services. Clients – either family and friends or a deceased's professional associates – want to mark the passing of a loved one in a public and meaningful way.

Call it a memorial, a celebration of life or a fabulous farewell; these gatherings are typically held apart from a funeral or religious ceremony. They can involve dozens or even hundreds of guests, and are held weeks or months after the loved one has passed.

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The logistics are similar to those of a wedding or corporate event. Planners draw on their network of local suppliers to book venues, hire musicians, caterers and florists, organize audio-visual presentations and even help arrange accommodation for out-of-town visitors.

Ms. Bland, who specializes in large gatherings such as festivals and concerts, attributes the growing demand for life celebrations to the baby boomer generation's tendency to reinvent traditions.

"It's no longer about just writing an obituary and holding a memorial. That wouldn't necessarily reflect how you've lived your life, or how you want people to remember your story," says Ms. Bland, who has even helped plan life celebrations with clients who "found it very therapeutic to build the story of their own lives" before they died.

Rose Timmerman Gitzi, owner of RTG Special Events in Ottawa, agrees that boomers are veering away from traditional and sombre memorials, but says her company is also being hired by a younger generation that is more inclined to outsource the complexities of such gatherings. "They're dealing with their grief. They don't want to have to deal with the logistics of putting a celebration together," Ms. Timmerman Gitzi says.

Emotions can run high before and during a life celebration, with both tears and laughter flowing freely. It sometimes helps to have a neutral party take care of the details when people are dealing with their loss, says Timmerman Gitzi, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology.

"They need an extra shoulder, and that's why they hire me. They're less specific about the details than a wedding party, for example, because they usually say, 'I just want to remember this person and share how great they were with everybody.'"

Life celebrations can be as simple as a two-hour reception, or as involved as an all-day charity fundraiser held in honour of the departed. Costs can range from a few thousand to several thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the event. Ms. Timmerman Gitzi, who says life celebrations represent about 10 per cent of her business, estimates costs to be as low as $1,500 plus management fees, when family and friends pitch in, to $5,000-plus if the entire event is outsourced.

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Ms. Bland estimates that a three-hour gathering for 250 guests including a booked venue, tabletop and room decor, video presentation and audio-visual services, officiant, musicians or disc jockey, appetizers and cash bar, could run between $10,000 and $20,000.

Of course, many families opt to do the work themselves. In fact, the Langley Golf and Banquet Centre in Langley, B.C., had so many families asking about their facilities that they created a special Celebration of Life package and posted it on their website complete with room rental rates and catering options. The centre hosts 20 life celebrations a year, which represents about five per cent of its business.

"The need for celebrations of life has definitely grown in the past few years. We've hosted celebrations ranging from 40 guests to over 300," says Donna Manhas, director of banquets. "There seems to be a new trend where families want to be in a place that is friendly and well-known to the person who has passed away. It's more a celebration than a mourning."

Requests to book the stunning John M.S. Lecky UBC Boathouse, which lies on the Fraser River, prompted the Richmond, B.C., venue to create a Celebration of Life rental package about a year ago.

"People are looking for unique places, but there are very specific needs to this niche that are different than a wedding or a corporate function," says Sharon Bulger, the venue's facility and programs manager. "For example, it's usually open-invite. We allow clients an eight-hour block so that guests can come and go."

Sometimes, the simplest gatherings can be the most effective. For a recent gathering, Ms. Bland encouraged guests to bring everyday objects that reflected their relationship with the deceased. One guest showed up with a ketchup bottle and shared stories of an ongoing joke about condiments; another brought a tennis racquet.

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Ultimately, families desire gatherings that are, at the same time, public and intimate, and that tell their loved one's story in a positive way.

"People come to socialize, to mourn, to honour and to gain closure," Ms. Bland says. "That's a really wide range of processes that people are going through during this kind of event."

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