Celebrating a Life

In her recent book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker impels us to prepare well for our gatherings. She reminds us to probe with questions such as: Who is this event for? What do they most want to get from it?

Whether preparing for an executive leadership retreat, a birthday party, or a virtual memorial service, it’s best to free ourselves of any preconceived notions of how the event should be structured. Instead, we do well to see what emerges as we answer foundational questions about the people and their purpose for gathering.

I was asked to facilitate a virtual memorial service for a woman I didn’t know who had suddenly passed away. To be honest, I didn’t feel equipped. I’ve never designed or facilitated a memorial before, and I wanted it to be perfect for her loved ones. But I said yes, trusting that the principles and practices that have guided our work for decades would provide the support needed to make the event wonderful.

Here are 5 steps that I found useful:

  1. Listened to what her sister already knew she wanted. This would be a fully virtual live event with as many people as wanted to join – and it would happen within 2 weeks.
  2. Asked what her friends and family wanted from the memorial. They needed to process the shock, celebrate who she was to them, and begin healing from the loss.
  3. Supported her sister as she collected the pieces that would give this program heart and soul. She collected nearly 60 photos from different phases of her sister’s life, and nearly a dozen songs that meant a lot to her across those years.
  4. Sketched out a possible flow for the event. We iterated on the program structure until we arrived at the 1.5-hour program outlined below.
  • Photos and music as people enter
  • A highly personalized welcome to frame our celebration of this unique individual
  • Guidance so that everyone could get what they need from the evening
  • More photos and music
  • 5 speakers representing different phases of the woman’s life
  • Photos and music between each speaker
  • A brief closing before moving into breakout groups- each representing an important phases of the woman’s life
  • Open-ended time in the breakout rooms, with 3 guiding questions: What memory would you like to share? What do you want to say to her this evening? What do you hear her saying to us this evening?
  1. Established a small team, each with clear roles, to tend to the many technical and administrative details that matter so much. For example, before the event, we needed team members to tailor the Zoom account, build a playlist, set up the rolling slide show, produce the program, and build a “run of show”. During the event we needed an expert to handle the “behind the scenes” tasks of playing slide show and music, set up the break-out rooms and instructions for people to join a room, tend to the Chat and the waiting room throughout.

The event happened, and it was beautiful. People from all corners of her life joined together in a single space and celebrated the life of a woman they loved. As I reflect on what made the event a success, four core principles surface for me:


This woman suffered from addiction and mental health struggles. These were not a secret. Her sister respectfully named this at the opening and invited everyone to broaden our celebration of her to include all that she was – a brilliant, caring, music-loving woman defined by SO much more than her struggles.


The nearly 100 people who joined came from all walks of life. Some were older and not at all comfortable with Zoom. To help folks feel safe, we made the event as low tech as possible (i.e., we highlighted call-in options on the invite, we muted and unmuted speakers, we didn’t rely on the CHAT feature, we helped people find and join their breakout room.)


We wanted a few key speakers to equally represent key phases of her life — and yet we wanted to engage everyone. We boosted engagement but using break out rooms, with open questions to guide the dialogue – not to limit or over-structure the space.


We all want to see ourselves in the life of our loved ones. Her sister did a phenomenal job collecting photos and choosing songs that would help everyone feel included. The breakout rooms built around phases of her life allowed people who hadn’t connected in decades to connect with each other now. (The breakout rooms from early years and from college stayed open for nearly an hour after the closing!)

May your events – professional and personal – be just what you need them to be.

P.S. You’ll enjoy this interview with Priya Parker in a recent On Being podcast (one of my favorites).

A testimonial: When I wrapped my head around the needs of my sister’s friends, along with my own, to celebrate, mourn and remember – I knew I needed to incorporate adult learning principles and knew Valerie could guide me to the right resources. What she built helped all of us process the loss and reconnect with one another in such meaningful ways.

How have you seen the art of gathering practiced to ensure a meaningful event?


Valerie Uccellani is Senior Partner and Core Consulting Team Leader for Global Learning Partners. Read more blogs by Valerie.

For another blog on using our approach outside work events: