Here's to the Hereafter: Celebrating Life With a Party

Michael Stock, at his wife Ursula’s celebration of life party, standing by the open bar she had insisted on including at the party.
Michael Stock, at his wife Ursula’s celebration of life party, standing by the open bar she had insisted on including at the party.

At the Three Flames Restaurant in San Jose, Calif., the banquet hall is packed. When they get the cue, 140 people raise their glasses for a toast. A sign in the corner reads "No Tear Zone." With a fully stocked open bar, catered food, and even favors, it looks like a fabulous party—which is exactly what Ursula Stock had in mind.

"She would love what's going on," said Michael Stock, her husband of nearly 47 years. "You look around, and there are people from her second grade class! There are people from management, people from the picket line, and neighbors. She's the reason why."

It's a party Ursula Stock knew she'd never attend. She decided back in the '70s that she wanted a celebration of life instead of a funeral. So she chose everything -- from the music to the guest list, Ursula left Michael with no doubts about her final wishes.

"There was some surprise," said Michael ."The open bar was one. Some of the relatives said, 'Oh, no!' and I said, 'She's not coming back to haunt me on this, OK? That's what she wants, that's what she's going to get."

(Read More: Unusual Funerals and Creative Cremations)

Boomers Do Funerals Their Way

Faced with aging parents and their own mortality, it's something more and more baby boomers are doing: taking life -- and death -- into their own hands.

Joanne Grady-Savard is one of them. The avid runner and president of a Boston-based staffing company has already planned her final exit.

"After funeral services, they go to my favorite spot from my running route," she said. "We would have a tent. We could have a lobster bake or a clam bake. No high heels, no black dresses; just an opportunity to sit on a bench and be in a beautiful environment."

Grady-Savard plans to have an engraved memorial bench placed at her "favorite spot," which overlooks the Atlantic on Massachusetts' South Shore. She's even developing a book of life lessons to be passed out at her funeral, instead of traditional Mass cards.

"We spend so much time and effort and energy planning our children's weddings and birthdays and anniversary parties," she said, "that this is, in my opinion, one of the most critical pieces of our life. It's something that you have control over; you manage the legacy."

(Read More: Popular Celebrity Gravesites)

A Planner for Your 'Final' Event

Photo Collages to lighten the mood at Ursula Stock’s celebration of life party.
Photo Collages to lighten the mood at Ursula Stock’s celebration of life party.

When it came time to plan her last big event, Grady-Savard bypassed the more than 20,000 funeral homes in the U.S., instead turning to Faith Moore, the president of her own corporate event planning company, Faith Moore & Associates.

"What you really do is create a blueprint for somebody, because you don't know when this is going to go into play," said Moore. "I would have a series of questions about what is most important to you — What places? What music? What color do you love to wear?"

Moore has been in the special events business for more than 20 years, handling everything from head of state visits to thousand-guest galas. She literally wrote the book on celebrations of life when in 2009 she published "Celebrating a Life: Planning a Memorial Service and Other Creative Remembrances."

"I've seen the most homegrown and touching party in the park that I was involved in that was around $100, to one that was more elaborate and had a memorial weekend and that was about $80,000," she said. "It's like a wedding. … It's really no different: people eat and drink, you have music, you have special touches, you have linens. And in a major, upscale, urban environment that's $150 to $250 a head."

Party Trend Affects Bottom Line

Elaborate or simple, these celebrations have the potential to add up to big business in the $17 billion death care industry. Every year, 2.5 million people die in the U.S. and, according to the Population Reference Bureau, those deaths are expected to rise 30 percent by 2030 when the first baby boomers turn 85. And it's those boomers, said funeral planner Mark Duffey, who are changing the way the funeral industry does business.

"If you're 75 or older, the mentality is: 'I want to have the same funeral that we had for Aunt Mildred; I don't want to be a bother, I don't want to be showy,'" he said. "You get below 70 and, all of a sudden, it's changing. Now people are saying, I'm a boomer and I want to be talked about."

Duffey is founder and CEO of Everest, a 24/7 funeral concierge and planning service—think OnStar for funerals. They help clients navigate the hereafter by comparing local funeral home prices, planning celebrations of life and fielding questions. Everest's services will run you $48 a year or $495 for a lifetime membership; they're also included for free under many major insurance companies. A basic consultation with Moore is comparable, at around $450.

"It's worth the money, the time, the whole 9 yards," said Grady-Savard. "Having someone like Faith, who's creative, who is sentimental and who has experience is valuable and priceless. There's a never-ending return on the investment!"

"Once in a lifetime, you have a chance to celebrate somebody's life," Moore said. "You don't want to be regretting that you missed the opportunity. You know, 'Darn. Why didn't I think of that? Why didn't I realize that you could have the Notre Dame fight song played at your dad's funeral?'"

Industry Adapts to Boomer Desires

As celebrations of life become more popular, the industry is taking note. Businesses catering to boomer clientele are cropping up across the U.S.

In Minneapolis, event start-up TK Tributes is focused solely on personalized memorial event planning. Forte Events in Denver has added celebrations of life to its portfolio of wedding, corporate, and nonprofit event offerings. In Los Angeles, Shiva Sisters creates full service memorials and receptions—even taking care of pet sitting for clients.

Services like these threaten the traditional funeral home business model, which is already strained from the rise in cremations. In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, the cremation rate was 42 percent. Duffey says the funeral industry must change for the baby boomers or be left behind.

(Read More: The Hot Trend in Funeral Business? Cremation, of Course)

"It's evolving so rapidly, it's evolving right past the funeral directors," he said. "The smart ones will be listening and adapting. It's going to be very tricky for funeral homes."

Should you plan a final party?

It’s a “No Tear Zone” at the celebration of life party for Ursula Stock, who had made arrangements to hold a party instead of a funeral.
It’s a “No Tear Zone” at the celebration of life party for Ursula Stock, who had made arrangements to hold a party instead of a funeral.

Planning your own celebration of life may seem extreme, but Grady-Savard said it was a must for her. She's seen what can happen when things are left unsaid.

"I have had several family members pass away," she said. "Family members that didn't have things planned for them and as a result, it caused a lot of friction. Some family members wanted this music, some wanted that music, some wanted an open casket, some closed casket. This could have been avoided if arrangements and decisions were made ahead of time and not in crisis mode."

"People should be doing this now, when you can enjoy it, when you're young and healthy and it's not threatening," Moore said.

Back in San Jose, one of Ursula Stock's friends reminisced about a wild plane trip they took together. Many people laughed; a few wiped away tears.

Michael Stock looked toward the "No Tear Zone" sign and smiled. "I'm breaking the first rule," he said. "No tears."

Watch the premiere of "Death It's A Living"Thursday, Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. EST/8CST on CNBC.