The Honor and Challenge of Giving a Eulogy

Posted on November 11, 2021 by Martin Oaks under Uncategorized
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How do you write a fitting eulogy?  And, how do you stand in front of an audience to deliver it meaningfully?

In his book, Farewell, Godspeed, a collection of sixty-four of “the greatest eulogies of our time,” Editor Cyrus M. Copeland wrote, “A great eulogy is both art and architecture — a bridge between the living and the dead, memory and eternity.”

Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization that promotes the art of public speaking, called the eulogy “the most difficult speech,” that is “both an honor and a challenge.”

If tasked to do a eulogy, where do you begin?

There are plenty of step-by-step guidelines available on-line and funeral professionals are also willing to assist you.   But, because of your relationship with the departed, a eulogy is not as daunting as it may seem.

In Farewell, the reader learns that meaningful eulogies do not need a blueprint to be effective.  Consequential eulogies follow only one rule:  true eloquence comes directly from the heart, no pretension or road map necessary.

Surprisingly, writing inadequacies may be assets in disguise.  Contrived, manufactured, by-the-book eulogies are no substitute for honest reflections that genuinely celebrate the loved one.

As for speaking abilities, this is a eulogy, not the launching of a political campaign.  No eulogist is addressing a hostile crowd — those gathered are sympathetic, expecting only to honor a life well lived.

Keeping in mind no one-size-fits-all, here are some other tips about eulogizing.

The best start is to prepare talking points about the deceased.  In simple, declarative sentences, record all of the reasons why the departed was loved– personality, aspirations, accomplishments, the footsteps left behind.  In short, everything that would illuminate a unique journey.

Remember, this is not an obituary:  a eulogy is a collection of personal connections.  Any direct quotes from the loved one are invaluable, as are quotes from family members and significant others.

 

Once this fact sheet is compiled, it needs to be organized thematically.  Material about family relationships, career milestones, and personal qualities can all be grouped into categories which make for an orderly presentation.

Begin by writing an Introduction in which you thank everyone for coming, salute the family, and explain the reason you are doing the eulogy.  If this feels unnecessary or too formulaic, another Opening is to go directly to the central theme of the eulogy.

Here’s one of the most noted eulogy openings in recent history.  Charles Spencer spoke about his sister, Princess Diana: “I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock.  We are all united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so.”

A third strategy to begin the eulogy is to employ some tasteful humor, understated remarks which reflect positively on the loved one.

This is the way Christopher Buckley opened the funeral mass eulogy for his father, esteemed author, editor, and television personality, William F. Buckley, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  “Pope Benedict will be saying mass here in two weeks.  I was told that the music at this mass for my father would in effect be the dress rehearsal for the Pope’s.  I think that would have pleased him, though doubtless he’d have preferred it to be the other way around.”

After the preliminaries, move to the Core of the talk. This section focuses on continuing bonds with the deceased.  In his play, I Never Sang for My Father, Robert Anderson wrote, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.”  That sentiment should be the North Star for the eulogist.

Weaving stories together that commemorate the loved one’s endearing traits, achievements, and those elements which will endure should be highlighted.  It is impossible to remove pain from this occasion, but as psychologists indicate, remembering is healing.  The eulogist’s job is to provide the platform for that healing.

Senator J. Lister Hill did just that in his tribute to Helen Keller.   Hill used Keller’s famous quote, “The more we try to help each other and make life brighter, the happier we shall be.”  The Senator then said, “She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world that there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”

The Closing of a eulogy should be short and to the point.  It’s the final chapter, the summing up of the deceased’s essence.

In Farewell, Copeland includes numerous potent closings.  Here are two of them:

John Huston on Humphrey Bogart:  “Yes, Bogie wanted for nothing.  He got all that he asked for out of life and more.  We have no reason to feel any sorrow for him — only for ourselves for having lost him.  He is quite irreplaceable.”

Benjamin E. Mays on Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “I close by saying to you what Martin Luther King, Jr. believed.  If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive.”

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