Skipping Tradition for a Celebration of Life

Since COVID, I feel like the world has been flipped upside down. Even as we continue to return to normal, individuals have emerged rethinking their commitments to work, family and friends. We valued our time with and away from family. We worked from home and still have the benefits of only being in the office a few days a week, well, some of us do…

For me, I began questioning the “norm” and how traditions sometime need to change.

To begin, let me explain that I worked in the funeral industry for many years and am all too familiar with the ritual that surrounds a loved one’s passing. I have been hands on for wakes, funerals and family dynamics.

I grew up and was raised in a Catholic family. My mom would always take me and my siblings to mass and CCD classes but my dad only attended mass on Christmas and Easter, a true Chreaster. As much as he was a man of many rituals, my mother was truly the religious one. Today, the only one who practices is my mother, the rest of us haven’t been to church in years.

As we spent time with my dad before he passed, my mother wanted the “high holy mass” with the traditional visiting hours and burial. My dad wasn’t overly religious and my siblings and I were struggling with walking through this process. He had last rites performed and numerous religious people came through to pray with us, but there was an uneasiness to all of it. We came away from the experience realizing we are spiritual, but not overly religious. 

As we discussed options, other than a wake and funeral mass, we talked about having a celebration of life. My father always said, “Don’t stand around me crying, go out and celebrate my life.” That became our reason to look at something different. We talked about all the music my father loved, we talked about his funny quips, which we dubbed “Charlie-isms”, the food he loved and the people who were dear to him. 

When he passed, we were ready to celebrate his life on his terms. 

I have to first say, I am so fortunate to have a friend in Angela Marenghi, owner of Grazina Events. She is the most amazing person, so when I called and said we wanted to do “A Celebration of Life”, she said, just give me a date and we can do this. 

After all our conversations, we decided to start with some poems and readings and then let people tell their stories about knowing my dad. After our stories, we wanted to serve some of his favorite food for lunch and celebrate him with conversations and love.

We contacted friends and family and planned to meet at Little Bird at the end of April. We wanted to have donuts and coffee when people arrived as my dad delivered donuts (Lori-Ann Donuts) to many of his clients and friends. It was a gesture of having people be excited to see my dad. He was a paper salesman for RIS Paper and this was his way of staying connected to his customers. 

For lunch, we wanted to make sure we served one of my father’s favorite meals. We found an old restaurant menu from Joe Tecce’s Restaurant in the North End, a frequent lunch spot of my dad’s. He loved the chicken and ziti lunch special, so when they re-vamped their menus, they decided to call the dish “Charlie White’s Special”, chicken and ziti with garlic and oil. 

For the finale, we served my dad’s favorite dessert; a brownie sundae with vanilla ice cream (Brigham’s Vanilla Ice Cream was his favorite) with a hot fudge sauce. It was a perfect ending for remembering my dad.

Here is where I have to give kudos to Angela and her staff. We told Angela, maybe 125-130 people for the celebration and around 100 people for lunch. Well, our numbers were off. We had 180 people arrive and 150 people stayed for lunch. Angela and her staff worked over-time getting more food ready for this hungry crowd. They may have been panicking in the back but everything went off without an issue. People raved about the food, the beautiful space and the thoughtful stories.

As people were leaving, they kept saying to me, “This is what I want! I want a party, a celebration and let people enjoy each other. Not sure I want the wake and funeral anymore.” Isn’t that what truly happens when we attend a wake? We see old friends, we reminisce about times together and try not to get too loud because there is a grieving family. Why not do that in a relaxed setting so the family can enjoy the experience, standing in a receiving line is exhausting.

The stories about my dad spanned the ages of when my dad liked to party, when he was sober (from 1975-2023), his comedic antics, his love of family, his stories, his close groups of friends and all those who were touched by his kindness and gratitude.

If you are thinking of having a celebration of life and don’t know where to start, I have enclosed my father’s simple Celebration of Life brochure. We started with The Dash by Linda Ellis and ended with the poem on the back of the pamphlet.

We were thoughtful about celebrating what he loved : good friends, good food and a good story, I think we hit on all of those. Angela’s selection of food and drinks was perfect for our crowd and her sound system allowed us to stream all my dad’s favorite songs. We arrived at 10 AM, set up the rooms with pictures, guests arrived at 11 AM, lunch was served around noon and we said good-bye to our last guests at 3:30 PM. It was perfect.

It’s too bad we didn’t celebrate my dad before he passed. I do know this, he would have been the life of the party whether in person or in our hearts. I miss you!

Charles W. White, Jr. (10/04/1933 – 3/30/2023)

Thank you Angela, you made our tough decision, an amazing celebration.