Preface: This post is about writing and delivering a eulogy. It presumes that a eulogy has already been decided on and someone has been asked to give it. If you aren’t sure whether a eulogy should be included in your service(s) I urge you to speak with your spiritual leader, funeral director, family and/or friends to determine when and where words of remembrance would be most appropriate.
I don’t say this to scare you, but giving a eulogy is a pretty big deal. Perhaps you were asked by the family to say a few words; or as the father, mother, son, or sibling you are the closest and most logical person to speak. Either way, you have been selected for a reason and it is your responsibility to use your allotted time to help everyone walk away feeling like you have painted a picture they want to hold on to.
If you have been asked by the next of kin or a close family member to give the eulogy, pay attention to any guidance they’ve given you.
If you’ve been asked to keep it within a certain time frame, you should generally try to abide by this. Its likely this timeframe was given to them by their spiritual leader or this is the timeframe they believe is appropriate based on the type of funeral they are having.
If the time frame is more open, do what you feel is best for the family while still being cognizant of time. This coming from the girl whose mother’s eulogy was given by her children…all six of them…separately. We knew seeing this in the program was likely to cause a groan no matter how much you loved my mother, but it’s what we felt we had to do. In the end we balanced time and needs by making sure each child’s remarks were brief, about 3 minutes each. I don’t think it dragged, but what do I know…my mother had just died.
I’m not an overly emotional person, but I will admit that when I go to a funeral there is a part of me that wants to cry. I want to feel so close to my loved one’s memory that I leave the service with snotty tissues spilling out of my pockets. Right, that’s gross, but it’s true. It’s the same reason why once or twice a year I pull out a box full of items that remind me of my mother, because I want to have a good cry.
Since my mother’s death the term ‘have a good cry’ has taken on new meaning. I used to think it meant to have a substantial cry, regardless of whether the tears felt good or bad. Now a good cry is what happens I when I pull out this box and look over the notes, photographs, and letters that allow me to remember my mother. My tears are good because I’m crying over fond memories and afterwards I walk away feeling closer to my mother.
Now this is just one woman’s opinion, but in my mind an effective eulogy is not one that recites dates, facts, and accomplishments; but one that brings our loved one back into the room the same way my mom-box does. It’s about the details, the things their closest friends and family knew, and the characteristics that make us smile and cry all at the same time . Above all else, an effective eulogy is one that honors the person’s memory in a way that those closest to them can relate to and appreciate. It is true that this is your speech, but it is for everyone.
A few tips for writing the eulogy:
- Write down the characteristics and qualities you want people to remember.
- Try and think of examples (a story or an anecdote) that illustrate the identified characteristics and qualities.
- It’s okay to acknowledge flaws in a non-threatening/non-judgemental way. A whole is greater than the sum of it parts. You loved all of this person and it’s okay to say you will remember their stubbornness and short temper just as much as you will remember their generosity.
- Is there an overall message about the person you want people to walk away with? If so, structure your remarks around this.
- Try to be appropriate. I’ve heard a few horror stories about things said during a eulogy that were pretty shocking for the context of where it was being delivered and the audience it was being delivered to. Just remember, there is a time and a place for everything and if you are not sure about a story or an anecdote, run it by a family member or someone close to the family ahead of time.
Thoughts on Emotion:
One of the scariest things about giving a eulogy can be fear of emotion; fear of experiencing emotion while writing and fear of breaking down publicly during the delivery. Both of these things may happen and you are better off accepting it and planning for how you will deal with it if and when it happens.
During the writing process experiencing emotion can be looked at as a good thing. It may be helpful to organize your thoughts and feelings on paper and, just like journaling and other forms of writing, this can be healing. You may laugh over the stories you recall and cry thinking about what you will miss, but sitting down and writing is inadvertently providing you space and time to reflect on your loved ones life and death.
I think more commonly people fear becoming emotional while speaking publicly; either they are embarrassed over showing emotion, they don’t want to ruin the moment, or both. When contemplating this possibility there are a few things to consider.
First things first, take stock of your emotional state and your anxiety towards the idea of talking about your loved one in front of a room full of people. Think about it carefully, if you think you will have an extreme reaction (i.e. have total meltdown and bawl the entire way through) then perhaps you should consider deferring to someone else. You shouldn’t force yourself to deal with the anxiety of this task on top of an already stressful day. If you feel way down deep that you have to say something at the service, then you might consider asking someone else to read your words. All that being said, please don’t worry about smaller (or even medium sized) displays of emotion. No one expects you to be stone and people in the audience will likely be able to relate.
If you are worried about becoming emotional here are a few tips:
- Write it down. I don’t care if you are a public speaking pro, now is not the time to wing in. You might be surprised how your emotion effects you once you’re in front of the room. Side note: another benefit to writing down the eulogy is that you may want to have access to it again. Families often share a typed version of the eulogy with family and friends who were unable to be present.
- Write it the way you will read it. Write it in your own voice and keep it casual.
- Practice. Practice on your own and practice in front of people. Different people will evoke different reactions in you, and your words will evoke different reactions in them. This may not fully prepare you for giving the eulogy, but it will allow you to practice reading through your emotions and the emotions of others.
- Pace yourself. Your instincts will tell you to rush through, but pacing yourself should help with emotion and will make it easier for the audience to follow you. Don’t be afraid to pause and let things sink in, it’s a good opportunity for you to take a deep breath and compose yourself.
- Accept that you may become emotional in front of a room full of people and believe that it’s okay.
Here’s one last bit of advice, I know it sounds cliche, but write from your heart. If your words are heartfelt, the emotion and sincerity behind them will make them all the more meaningful.