On My 50th Birthday, I Inadvertently Hosted My Own Funeral — And It Was Fantastic

"At the funerals I’ve attended I always learned so much more about the person ― things I wish I knew when they were alive."
The author speaking at her 50th birthday party/"funeral."
The author speaking at her 50th birthday party/"funeral."
Courtesy of Kristal Griffith

I’d had the idea to throw myself a big 50th birthday party for a long time. It is a milestone, after all. But this was no ordinary party.

It originated as a joke. I’m 50 and single. I’ve never been married ― not even close. And, yet, like most single people, I have a ton of married friends. By the time I got to 50, I’d been to ― and in ― countless weddings. I flew all over the country, spending gobs on bridesmaid dresses, airfare, gifts and numerous other expenses. The same thing happened once those friends had kids. I can’t even count how much I’ve spent on baby gifts. So I used to joke that one day I was going to throw myself a party and create a gift registry in an attempt to collect on all that money I spent.

But as the years passed, I learned that the gifts, the money and the material things aren’t important. I’m most grateful I had meaningful time with my friends. I have wonderful memories of their weddings, their showers and other big life moments.

So why wouldn’t I, for my 50th, want to create a lasting memory too? Shouldn’t I get to gather all my best friends in one place for a day, just like you would for a wedding or shower?

Clearly, I thought the answer was yes, and yet I was nervous about planning such a big gathering. Would friends fly from all across the country to Denver for a birthday party? Would relatives drive from Nebraska and Kansas just to gather for three or four hours? It was a gamble.

As I went about planning my big day, I thought about what would make it meaningful to me, as well as to my guests. I wanted to enjoy my favorite food. I wanted to hear and sing some of my favorite songs. And I wanted to have a few people tell stories and toast me, like they would at a wedding.

Yet when I reflected on everything that happened that day, I realized: I had organized my own funeral!

At funerals, we often do a number of things to remember our loved ones ― the music, the food, the readings and sometimes even the attire reflect the honoree. In my case, I hired a caterer to make my favorite food: tacos. I asked my worship band at church to play some of my favorite songs, and then we selected four additional songs to sing as a group. I even asked people to show up wearing my favorite clothing: a casual hoodie. Two people read scriptures that were meaningful to me, both from Psalms in the Bible. And, finally, my mom and friends eulogized me, in a sense, recounting moments from my past that affected them in meaningful ways. What they shared brought everyone to tears.

It was just like a funeral service.

And I loved it so much. It was powerful, fun and meaningful. People told me how much they enjoyed it, how uplifting it was, and how they were going to steal the idea for their upcoming birthdays.

The author (left) with two friends at her 50th birthday party. She asked people to wear a hoodie, her favorite item of clothing.
The author (left) with two friends at her 50th birthday party. She asked people to wear a hoodie, her favorite item of clothing.
Courtesy of Kristal Griffith

I wonder, why do we wait until someone is dead to gather around them, celebrate them and do their favorite things? Why aren’t we showing up for our friends now, when they’re alive? Why aren’t we creating meaningful celebrations for things other than weddings, showers, holidays and funerals?

As part of this birthday gathering, I spoke too. I shared how at the funerals I’ve attended I always learned so much more about the person ― things I wish I knew when they were alive so that I could ask questions, talk with them, learn more about them. I told them one of my goals for this birthday party was that they learn more about me so our conversations in the future could go deeper.

I also shared why I specifically wanted these people to gather and how grateful I was to have them in my life. Friendships are one of the things I value most. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t have a spouse or children? I don’t know. But I wanted my friends to understand their importance to me.

I read that day from Psalm 90:12. It says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

To me, this doesn’t mean you’re being asked to literally count your days. I think this psalm, which is a prayer written by Moses, conveys the importance of understanding our priorities in life and really living out those priorities. I hope my guests that day left with no doubt that each one of them is a priority to me.

I learned that I was a priority to them too. The gamble was worth it. My friends and family did show up for me. They flew in from Washington, D.C., Texas and Oklahoma. They drove from Nebraska and Kansas. They showered me with love.

I also ended up creating a registry, but I did not register for things. At my age, I don’t need a toaster, a plate or another towel. Instead, I made a travel registry, selecting experiences like a Hobbiton movie set tour in New Zealand and a Loch Ness boating excursion in Scotland. I hope to use the money from my travel registry to explore the world. Yet if I just end up visiting my friends more, that’s exceptional too.

I strongly encourage you to throw yourself a party. You don’t have to tell people you’re planning your funeral. I didn’t. But the framework of a funeral is ideal for a celebration of your life. We think of funerals as dreaded events of sorrow ― and they can be. But they’re also great expressions of love, joy, laughter and care. I cannot express how powerful it is to have the people you love and the people who love you all in one place at one time. It was the best day of my life.

So, I urge you: Gather your people. Invite them to show up for you on a special day. Let’s celebrate one another now! Don’t wait for your funeral.

Kristal Griffith is a storyteller. She enjoys crafting stories through podcasts, videos and blogs. She has a 25-year career in journalism, public relations and communications. She’s worked in higher education and healthcare handling internal, executive and external communications. Kristal’s early career was in television news and she won an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting. She received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Texas Christian University and an MBA from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. She’s passionate about her faith, her family and her friends.

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