Let me start by stating the obvious: No one wants to talk, read, or think about a topic like planning a child’s funeral. But this blog is all about addressing the unthinkable, and that’s what I’m writing about today. So, how did we do it? How do you design an event to commemorate your worst fear? The first thing we did was eliminate the word “funeral.” Instead we called it a Celebration of Life. That was 3 months ago today.
As I think back on that day, exactly 3 months ago, I remember that the feelings of love and support were overwhelming (in a good way). Hundreds of people came. Family, friends, clients, acquaintances, and total strangers from Minnesota — plus family and friends flew in from California, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and Colorado. One of John’s best friends even used a year’s worth of vacation days to drive up from Kentucky. The event itself was exactly what we wanted it to be.
We were comforted by positive feedback from the guests as well. Last week I had lunch with a friend who attended Julian’s Celebration, and she also had recently attended a funeral for her cousin’s son. She shared with me some of the differences between the two services: Julian’s Celebration was uplifting and healing for her, the other one was painful. Julian’s service made her feel as if she knew who Julian was (even though she had only met him a couple of times), the other service didn’t reveal much about who the child was.
My friend encouraged me to share some details about Julian’s Celebration so other bereaved parents, like her cousin, might find inspiration and assistance when they have to do the impossible: plan their own child’s funeral. I’ve been wanting to capture some of those memories anyway, so I started thinking about it.
Let me start by telling you a few things my husband and I did NOT do:
- We didn’t call it a funeral. Right from the beginning, we called it his Celebration of Life. “The Celebration” for short.
- We didn’t rush into it. Some people follow a specific schedule for the events surrounding a death, based on their religious beliefs and family traditions. We didn’t feel obligated to follow any specific schedule, so we took our time and planned the event for the date that felt right to us: his 4th birthday. It was nine days after his death.
- We didn’t have an open casket. In fact, we didn’t have a casket at all. We had him cremated, but didn’t have the ashes at the ceremony. I agree with C.S. Louis when he said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Julian’s body was the container for his Soul, and he didn’t need it anymore. It didn’t need to play a role in the Celebration, in any form.
- We didn’t let anyone take over. At the time of the planning process, we were surrounded by people who wanted to help us any way they could. It would have been easy to find some sort of template or find someone to plan the funeral on our behalf, and in many ways would have been easier. But nothing was easy in those first days. Everything was hard. Given the choice between not-easy Celebration planning, or not-easy anything else, I chose to focus on the planning. And I’m glad I did, because the things that initially seemed hard ended up being surprisingly therapeutic.
And now for the things my husband and I DID do:
- We were inspired by a Dr. Seuss quote. Someday* I’ll write more about how the quote presented itself to me in the first place, but the short story is that I came across a quote that said, “Don’t cry because it’s over… Smile because it happened.” The fact that it was a quote from Dr. Seuss made it even more perfect, and we decided to make it the theme of the Celebration. Not because we didn’t believe that crying is an important part of processing emotions, but because we wanted the Celebration itself to be focused on what a wonderful gift he was to us. We wanted to remember his life, and we wanted to smile.
*NOTE: I wrote more about this in a later blog post.
- We designed the experience. John and I both have a background in design, and our business is focused on designing experiences. Even though each element took effort, I was grateful for the opportunity to apply the skills and strengths that I have as a creative professional to design the details of the event. Everything I created — posters, program, slideshow, and a keepsake photo we gave the guests — was designed with common elements: the Dr. Seuss quote, the little spaceman illustration from the pajamas he was given in the hospital, and the color red (Julian’s favorite color).
- We asked people to wear red. We wanted the event to be lively and celebratory. It was so perfect that Julian’s favorite color was red (despite the fact that by the age of 3, almost all boys will tell you their favorite color is blue). The whole church was a sea of red, because in every announcement of the event we included this sentence: “Guests are encouraged to wear red, Julian’s favorite color.” What didn’t need to be said was, “Don’t wear black.”
- We used music throughout the service. Overall, the music was amazing. We stayed away from sad, melancholy songs (perhaps with the exception of the song I chose for the photo slideshow — a track from Julian’s favorite CD of lullabies). The musical highlight was a song written and performed by Molly Dean Anderson, who also lead us all in singing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the service.
- We chose speakers who knew and loved Julian, starting with my husband. When John announced that he wanted to speak at the Celebration, I tried to talk him out of it. But it was important to him, and he wrote a beautiful message. When it came time to share his message, he had Oscar join him as he spoke about bravery and what it means to be a hero. My two brothers and John’s sister also shared touching, beautiful messages about Julian.
- We really, truly celebrated his life. The Celebration was held in a church, but the service was intentionally non-churchy. It was important to us that the Celebration was focused on our son, not on religious tradition. In addition to Julian’s dad, uncles, and aunt, we asked two long-time family friends to participate in the service. First, Georgann Fuller offered beautiful words of wisdom from her own experience of losing her husband many years ago, and she read a poem that has become deeply meaningful to me. Later, the “sermon” part of the service (the Meditation) was delivered by Don Portwood, who has known me since I was young, officiated our wedding, was with us at the hospital as Julian went in for surgery the day after his diagnosis, and was at the hospital with us the day Julian died. Don included a poem by Rumi in his meditation, and it was perfect. Everyone who participated in the service was clearly filled with love for Julian and our whole family. The service was truly a “Celebration of Life.”
Planning an event to honor a child’s death is not something anyone ever wants to do. And it’s certainly not anything anyone wants to be good at. But I followed my instincts, and found solace in the “work” of it. I wanted the event to be focused on sweet Julian’s short life, but also on love and gratitude for life in general. It was exactly what we wanted. And I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
And now for some special thanks:
Don Portwood — for delivering the perfect message in the service, and for being so much more than a friend-slash-pastor.
John, Dan, Alex, and Jennifer — for so eloquently writing and speaking about their memories of Julian.
Georgann Fuller — for traveling from California and contributing such a wise and important message of survival and love.
Molly Dean Anderson — for writing a song specifically for the event, and performing it like an angel (and the other songs, too).
Jeff Lindsay, Anne-Marie Finsaas, and all at Colonial Church of Edina — for your contributions to the service, and providing such a beautiful and welcoming environment for the event.
Lili Korbuly — for capturing the event in beautiful photographs.
Bastian Skoog & Queen of Cakes — for the beautiful flowers at the front of the church, and the delicious birthday cake served after the ceremony.
Everyone who sent flowers — because even though we said we’d prefer a donation to Julian’s fund, the abundance of red floral arrangements was breathtaking.
Friends and family — for folding programs, stuffing envelopes, hanging balloons, serving cake, and keeping us sane.
Everyone who flew in for the event — especially my cousin Sarah, who has always been like a sister to me.
Every single person who attended, and those who couldn’t attend — because your love and positive energy made the event a true Celebration.
Last but not least: Julian — for being my inspiration and motivation, not only for the Celebration, but for the rest of my life.