One thing we know for sure is that life has a beginning and an end. The question is, how do we want to express that ending? Will it be an intimate memorial gathering of family and friends? Or would a ceremony that embraces a love of travel and culture fit the bill?

These are not easy questions. But, if you thought your only option was a traditional funeral or memorial services tied to a funeral home, you should know you have more options than you think. You have the freedom to design an end-of-life ceremony that uniquely speaks to the life you’ve lived, like the family of Richard Matthews* did earlier this year.

A Ritual of the Heart

Perched in the island’s Western Coastal Valley, where the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet, sits Rinc?n, Puerto Rico. It’s a sleepy town known for having everything a visitor could need – snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing – all within nearly eight miles of coastline. It’s where enthusiasts can find some of the most exciting waves on the island. It is also where Richard Matthews become a local surfing hero.

In early March, the evening sun shone across the Marina Beach coastline, making its azure-colored waters a mirror. Armed with their surfboards, nearly 200 of Matthews’ closest friends and family arrived for a special ceremony. They came to talk about their memories and share knowing laughs about fun times. Many wiped away tears. All arrived to celebrate his life and honor his legacy. They came for a paddle-out.

A paddle-out is a spiritual ritual of mourning that is often practiced in surf culture. It acts as a floating memorial for the deceased, and an emotional release for the living. Many believe that paddle-out ceremonies emerged from Hawaii’s ancestral culture. A more modern view births its popularity in the heart of Waikiki in the early 20th century. Both origin stories lean to an honored tradition where mourners paddle-out into the sea, encircle the deceased’s surfboard, and join hands in unity and remembrance.

The ritual at Marina Beach was simple. Those adept at braving the waters paddled out to sea, heading a few miles out from the coastline, while many onlookers gathered at the shore.

Each surfer waded to the board in the center of the circle, momentarily taking a handful of Matthews’ remains as their own before paddling back in place, directing their boards in the formation of a heart. Words of reflection were shared, and after a collective cheer and splashing of water, Matthews’ loved ones – his tribe – cast his ashes back into the very sea he loved.

Though the paddle-out isn’t a funeral, it is this type of observance that serves as evidence of how end-of-life celebrations can be steeped in culture, symbolism, and the uniqueness of the individual in lieu of traditional religious practices.

Tradition Disrupted

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, today’s average funeral can set a family back nearly $8,500. Add on items or services such as a car service, flowers, or an obituary, can quickly lead to an upsurge in costs. There are a lot of difficult decisions to make and loved ones of the deceased are often unsure of where to begin when planning for a funeral or memorial, much less understand the costs involved.

In 2015, the Funeral and Memorial Information Council identified that 86 percent of adults over the age of 40 stressed that funeral professionals were important in making funeral arrangements. Eighty-five percent stated funeral professionals were needed to ensure that the ceremony and arrangements mirrored the wishes of the family. However, COVID-19 disrupted the funeral services market, introducing complexities and restraints previously unheard of in the industry. Funeral directors were challenged with discovering new ways to adjust and deliver distinctive offerings, while families uncovered new ways to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.

Something New about End-of-Life

End-of-life planning has come to include more distinct elements that speak to the likes and dislikes of the person. You don’t have to simply follow traditional observances. Site and venue may be among the most important decisions to make in end-of-life planning. If you are a sports enthusiast, you can choose a special memorial event at a football club. You can decide upon a barbeque memorial if you’re a known grill connoisseur, or you may request your loved ones scatter your ashes at your favorite getaway destination.

Additional, unique themes for celebration of life remembrances include:

  • For the environmentalist: You can design a green or sustainable celebration if you are passionate about living a life that supports and reflects the importance of improving the world around you. You could ask loved ones and guests to donate to your most beloved charity or non-profit. A potential location for your memorial may be one that allows the return of your remains back to nature and reflects your ideals, whether that is a nearby coastline or special woodland area.
  • For the creative artist: You can demonstrate your love for art by requesting a curated display of your unique designs. You can also ask loved ones to create distinct pieces in your honor for all the guests to keep and remember.
  • For the foodie:. Choose a bespoke location such as your favorite eatery or pub, or serve your favorite meal paired with a most beloved wine.
  • For the gardener: Honor what you love and appreciate with a memorial hosted at a garden-themed eatery, cherry-blossomed park, or local botanical garden. Those in attendance may also be inspired to donate to a local food bank or community garden.

An end-of-life celebration or memorial is a tangible demonstration of how we want to end our story. Planning it is a deeply personal act of love for those around you that can be as varied and as rich as the life you chose to live.

*We respect the memories of those who contributed to this article. So, while their stories are true, names have been changed to protect their privacy. Thank you for understanding.