Peg Mitchell was as prepared as she could be for the memorial service for her partner, Pam Conway. "We knew to have a lot of Kleenex around," she said.
Conway was prepared, too.
Four months before ALS would take Conway's life, Mitchell reserved a church meeting room, asked close friends to create photo boards and take care of refreshments, then invited about 100 people to a memorial service — at which Conway was the guest of honor.
To start the proceedings, Conway read a "legacy letter" she had written. After that, Mitchell asked friends to come sit by Conway and share stories about her.
"There were tears, but I think mostly they were tears of appreciation and gratitude," said Mitchell. "It was much more that than how much she would be missed. It was a most meaningful experience for her and all who attended. She just glowed for days about it."
While they are far from replacing traditional funerals, life celebrations that include the terminally ill have become increasingly popular. They take many shapes (from church services to cookouts to full-blown parties at local bars) and go by many names (living memorials, life celebrations, healing services), but they have one thing in common: the person being honored is present — and may even take an active role.
"There's a different purpose for each gathering," said hospice music therapist Jennifer Pelletier, whose family held what she called a "healing service" when her sister was dying of cancer. "Every person has a different place that they're on in their journey and a different goal that they or the family are looking for."
The gatherings do more than allow friends and family to share stories. Often, the dying person throws in his or her own anecdotes and thank-yous. Pelletier and other hospice workers say living memorials offer a chance to laud rather than lament and that they serve as a salve for people who are discomfited by death and dying.
"One of the challenges we have in our culture is acknowledgment of the grief process," Mitchell said. "I think walking with people into death is one of life's richest experiences. And there's sadness, but it's important to have sadness. Being able to call up those memories isn't hard; it's wonderful."
More than 300 people showed up at Woodbury United Methodist Church for the healing service for Lori Webster, said Mike Webster, her widower. "We came away feeling so humbled that so many people came," he said.
During the service, the couple were anointed with oil, and Lori was presented with a proclamation of Lori Webster Day in Hastings, where she worked. Then friends and family members were invited to stand up and talk about Lori. To the Websters' surprise, about two dozen did so.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Mike, "but to have all those people from her past and present be there … it meant so much to her."
Since that 2005 service, Mike has become an advocate of living memorials.
"I wish more people would do that because I think it's more meaningful to talk to a person than to just go to their wake," he said.
Allina Health Hospice Chaplain Kathleen Burns said living memorials aren't an indictment against religion, but a measure of where people increasingly find community.
A vast majority of her patients say they believe in God, but many are not churchgoers. "One of the things people get is connecting to communities: recovery communities, music communities, motorcycle groups. The trend for people not affiliated with church — and even some who are — is to do something way, way away from a traditional service at church," she said.
It probably doesn't get much farther away than Liquor Lyle's.
That's the Minneapolis tavern where one of Burns' patients set up an Irish wake. "There was a band and food and she got all dressed up in a sparkly, glittery top and hat," said Burns, who has been a hospice chaplain for 18 years. "But at that point of her life she was so exhausted, I didn't get a sense that she really was able to enjoy it."
Sharing a passion
That brings up one of the pitfalls of living memorials: They don't always go as planned.
Another of Burns' clients died the day before a life celebration party, which also was meant to serve as a fundraiser to offset medical costs.
Hospice music therapist Mark Burnett said it's wise to have a living memorial as soon as possible after a terminal diagnosis, but it's not easy to determine just when the time is right.
Burnett had a patient who developed dementia at a fairly early age and wanted friends to see him "before his dignity would be challenged." So the patient and his wife arranged a "weekend of activities. They went to a sporting event with a whole lot of people and had a cookout," he said.
Burnett said living memorials allow the dying to express their personalities and share their passions.
One of his patients, a beer-loving man, gathered relatives and friends and made a batch of beer. When the beer was ready, they had a tasting party. Later, after the man's funeral, his friends and family shared the final brews they'd made together.
Others are more earnest — to a point.
Burns said one of her patients set up a very traditional funeral service. The woman selected the readings and the music. But during the eulogy, she "was out in front with a microphone and commented on what was being said," said Burns. "It was hysterical."
Peg Mitchell has already decided she'd like to have a living memorial of her own — with one caveat: "I have joked for years that I'm a horrible procrastinator," she said, "so I hope I am blessed with a terminal disease [rather than a sudden death], because I will need six months to tell everybody how much I love them."