It’s never too late (or too soon) to plan an end-of-life ceremony

GUELPH – Celebrant Christine Lafazanos said end-of-life ceremonies can happen any time, from before a person’s death to years after. 

They include funerals, celebrations of life, visitations, and other gatherings that honour someone passing or approaching the end of life. 

Lafazanos has been creating custom ceremonies,  including funerals, weddings, and child welcomings, for almost nine years in Guelph, Wellington County, Waterloo Region, Toronto and Hamilton. 

Ceremony timing

Though most end-of-life ceremonies happen after a death, some people approaching the end of their life have ceremonies before they die.  

For example, some who choose medical assistance in dying (MAID) “create ritual and ceremony at the time MAID is being administered,” Lafazanos noted. 

Ceremonies can also happen long after a death. 

Lafazanos said a number of her clients struggle jumping directly into planning a ceremony during the “shock and a rush” of the “initial stages of grieving.”   

She assures ceremonies don’t “need to happen right away.”  Some are held months later and Lafazanos has supported ceremonies as long as 20 years after a person’s passing. 

She wants families to know they have time to prioritize their own care and wellbeing.

Some families say a later ceremony gave them time “to process” and made them “more able to connect with others because they weren’t in the absolute chaos and throws of it.” 


“The location doesn’t have to be one specific place” like a funeral home, Lafazanos said –  ceremonies can happen at art galleries, beaches, park picnic pavilions, golf courses, and around campfires. 

“You can choose a space that is both comforting and perhaps reflective of the person who has died,” she said. 

What type of ceremony? 

Lafazanos said people don’t always know what options they have – “sometimes people are at a loss for being able to imagine what a modern or non-traditional ceremony could look like.” 

Part of a celebrant or officiant’s role is to coach, reassure, and validate clients that their “choices will be honoured.

“Ceremonies don’t need to be sombre and sad and heavy,” she noted.

“Meaningful ceremonies are ones that tell the story of the person who died and reflect their values and beliefs,” Lafazanos notes.

“We are not all the same, so why should all funeral ceremonies seem the same?” 

Lafazanos, who specializes in alternatives to mainstream secular or religious traditions, says end-of-life ceremonies can be small gatherings for close loved ones, or public events shared on social media and in newspapers. 

“The structure of the ceremony can be whatever you want it to be – it can be a round of golf, a campfire sing along, a barbecue, a pool party, a karaoke night.” 

Lafazanos added she does not recommend “adding novelty for the sake of it, but if it would be meaningful and significant and appropriate to the person who has died.” 

Planning ahead 

Families often “have a sense of concern” about planning something that honours their loved one. Some people save their families that worry by planning their own end-of-life ceremony ahead of time. 

Lafazanos said people share “ideas, elements and rituals” they want and highlight important aspects of “their legacy, their story they would want included.”

They create a “blueprint or template for their ceremony that will get added to and refined at the time of their death,” noting these plans are “comprehensive enough that if I die before they do it will get passed along to another officiant.” 

While some people who plan their own ceremonies are nearing death, Lafazanos notes this planning can happen at any time. 

Ideally, this planning is “done in consultation” with family, to gauge whether the plan is feasible. 

For example, someone may want their family to anoint their body in oils, but maybe those family members find that idea traumatizing.

Lafazanos said a “really small percentage” of her clients plan their own end-of-life ceremony in preparation, but there is significant value even in just having “a conversation prior to death about ceremony. 

“Our culture still has a rampant fear and avoidance of death,” Lafazanos said, making it challenging for these conversations to happen. 

“Sometimes people have chosen poems, readings, prayers, songs they know they want included,” she noted, “or requests for certain people to speak.” 

She said these “smaller requests are more common,” and they help to “alleviate that work and labour and potential worry from loved ones … so they can focus on grieving.” 

Disposition options 

Options for disposition, what happens to a body after death, include; 

  conventional burial; 

  green burial;

  conventional (fire) cremation; and

  water cremation (aquamation). 

Conventional burial includes a large engraved headstone, embalming the body, and containing the casket in a large cement vault.

Alternatively, green burial often means: 

  “no embalming… for fear of potential long-term impacts of embalming chemicals on ground water;” 

  no cement vault; and 

  sometimes, no grave marker – something small made of natural stone, or even a wildflower meadow instead. 

Conventional cremation uses high heat to reduce a body to bones.

Water cremation, or aquamation, is similar, but heated water (with environmentally friendly chemicals) “gently dissolves soft tissues of the body,” a process that takes less than 24 hours. 

“What remains in the water is safe enough to put in the sewer system,” Lafazanos notes. 

For both water and fire cremation, bones remain and are “dried, powdered, and given to loved ones.” 

Lafazanos said “fire cremation has a large CO2 impact,” but it can be the “most financially accessible” option, making it a good choice for many families.  

Pandemic impact 

Lafazanos said “during the pandemic a number of loved ones were prevented from having the kinds of end-of-life ceremonies they wanted,” particularly when it “wasn’t possible to gather.”

Some people had “entirely virtual end-of-life ceremonies,” while others opted for “a very small number of people in person and some virtual.” 

 Some people chose not to have a ceremony while pandemic restrictions were in place, with the intention of having one later. 

Lafazanos notes there is still a “backlog of end-of-life ceremonies that haven’t happened because of the pandemic.”

Some people “hosted a gathering a year or more after a loved one’s death,” but some have not yet done so, she said. 

“I hope more people would consider doing an end-of-life celebration or memorial at some point still because it’s never too late,” Lafazanos added.

And the “absence of [a ceremony] would have a negative impact on the grieving process. 

“Even if it’s been a couple years, I still think it can be healing and supportive to have one,” she said.