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Simply put, a eulogy is a speech made at a funeral/memorial service to pay tribute to the deceased. It is a time-honored way of starting the grieving process. However, eulogies vary widely in what is said, how it is said and by whom it is delivered. Most often a friend or family member talks about the deceased, but often, since many people fear public speaking, the family lets a minister do the talking. It is considered an honor to give a eulogy, but it requires quite a bit of thought and deliberation to truly summarize what a person’s life meant and express that to others.
A eulogy may have different meanings to different people. Some feel it should be a celebration of life, and others feel it is a way to give meaning to a person’s life. Some feel that many different people speaking about their relationships to the deceased is a way to show the emotions connected to the deceased, but others feel that is self-indulgent of the speaker to talk about themselves at all during a eulogy. Since the eulogy is part of the grieving process, the immediate family left behind should have the greatest say in what composes the speech. Because of the emotional impact of what they are going through, family members often reach out to friends to help them.
Over the decades, eulogies have changed in style. In the Victorian era, speeches described the deceased in terms of what qualities were most admired at the time. For example, men were often described as being brave and gallant while women were portrayed as demure and gracious. In the 1900s, when money and work became more valued, men were described by how many workers they employed and what they meant to the community.
Today, the trend is for more honesty, sometimes almost brutally so. Funeral speeches may now describe the person’s struggles in life, with the intent that the attendees see the good and the not so good, perhaps meant to be a “lesson” to others about what not to do. Family members may describe a battle with addiction or other challenge so we see the deceased in a “human” light. Humor is often incorporated nowadays to lighten the somber feeling of a funeral.
Presidents and Congressmen have often had the task of giving funeral speeches. Of course, they likely have assistants to help them write a eulogy, but the delivery is all their own. Senator Edward Kennedy is known to have said that that it was important to talk about the deceased and not about who was giving the speech. In his eulogy to his brother, Robert Kennedy, he quoted a speech Robert gave to South Africa and a paragraph Robert wrote about their father. After reading the speech and paragraph, Senator Kennedy said,
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Simple, elegant and classic about a man who gave so much to his country and fought so hard to make every voice heard.
When President Obama gave the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney after the tragic shooting at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, he surprised everyone by singing Amazing Grace as part of the tribute, something never done before by a President. The President also said of Pinckney, “What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized — after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.” Many say that this eulogy will go down in history and be one of the ways Obama is remembered.
Giving a eulogy can be an honor, but difficult.
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Writing a eulogy can be a daunting task initially, especially if you are not a writer or don’t like to speak in front of people. Remember that writing a eulogy is an honor and should be taken as such. And there are ways to make the task easier. Here are some tips for writing a eulogy:
- Who is the audience? Likely, people of a wide range of ages and relationships to the deceased will attend the service. You will probably not want to bring up anything that will remind people of family squabbles, feuds or disagreements.
Don’t talk about things that only a few people understand, but make your eulogy more general in tone. If the audience is predominantly elderly, limit slang and sayings that may confuse them.
Understand that this is an emotional time and you may want to refrain from making the speech overly serious if the family is trying to hold back tears. Especially if the family is more reserved, an emotional eulogy can be gut wrenching. Don’t try to say anything about your relationship to the deceased that doesn’t ring true with the audience. This is a time to honor the deceased and the relationship they had to their family as a whole.
- Find the best way for you to write. If you need quiet, get away by yourself and allow yourself to feel the emotions and memories necessary to write the best possible tribute. Some people cry while writing their speech and others can detach more. There are no rules.
Gather stories from friends and family and research eulogies online. Try to get a feel for the person you are honoring and what they were like in life. Serious? Funny? Dedicated? Loving? Then incorporate that into your theme. If you truly did not know them that well but were asked to speak, don’t try to act as though you were extremely familiar. Talk about what you do know and insert family stories for the rest.
Kevin Costner spoke at Whitney Houston’s funeral, although they were not especially close. However, they were known for the movie they made together (The Bodyguard) and he shared his feelings about the parallels in their lives.
- Use favorite sayings or quotes. Anything that the deceased said continually or their favorite sayings, stories or jokes may be part of the speech. This may give more insight into the deceased’s personality than anything else. If they constantly mispronounced a word or always said the same phrase, you can use it as long as you make sure it doesn’t come off as offensive. It needs to be used as though you appreciated the deceased’s little quirks.
There are also lots of websites online that give quotes that are suitable to use in a eulogy, such as Helen Keller’s, “ What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us.” You might also use Abraham Lincoln’s, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” These are the type of quotations that can apply to many, many lives.
You can also read a meaningful passage from a book, poem or religious text. This may take some of the pressure off the speaker but can also be a well thought out, relatable part of the ceremony. A favorite is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Success”:
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
- Talk about the deceased’s favorite charities and causes. This can actually give a lot of insight into a person. By identifying those things that they felt most compassionate about, you can see a bit of what meant the most to them. Was religion a focus? Did they support children’s charities? Did they love and adopt dogs? Did they volunteer at the hospital? What really made them tick?
Not only does this say a lot about the person, but those in the audience may be moved to support a charity or foundation in honor of the deceased. Often, families are asked to support a charity in lieu of sending flowers, but this adds a more personal touch.
- Use humorous stories and situations. Remember that your goal is not to embarrass the deceased, though.
At one person’s funeral, a son took the podium and told the story about how his father used to teach the kids lessons. He relayed that his father always made the boys wear undershirts as a hard and fast rule. On one occasion the son didn’t, so the father made him layer on seven undershirts and wear them around one afternoon to make his point.
The audience was in stitches seeing the image in their minds. As the other children related their own stories, everyone was wiping away tears from the laughter but also from missing someone with this much character.
- Talk about the deceased’s struggles and challenges. Today, it is much more acceptable to be realistic about a person’s life in hopes that those hearing about it might be moved to help make a difference in their own lives or those of others. We have come to accept that everyone has their own demons and must learn to overcome them.
However, some people may not want you to mention their loved one’s struggles. The deceased’s life may be a source of regret for the people who knew them, and there may be guilt that loved ones couldn’t stop a self-destructive behavior. Don’t be afraid to talk about the “elephant in the room,” but only if it is appropriate.
- Don’t get hung up on showing or not showing emotion. Memorializing one’s life is one of the most emotional events that there is. If you cry while giving your eulogy, that’s okay. If you don’t, that’s okay too.
If you are worried about your composure when speaking, make sure you practice your speech over and over until you can recite it from memory. Also, write it down and read it if you must, but try to make eye contact with the audience as much as you can. You may also try to focus on people you feel most comfortable with in the audience.
- Practice your speech in front of others and get their feedback. Don’t try to go it alone. By letting others hear it and give you pointers, you can have a better speech and feel less anxious.
The more you say it, the more you will have the opportunity to get your emotions and nerves under control. If you love to speak, then you only need to practice to make sure that you have all the points covered, but do still let another look it over. They may find something objectionable that you have not considered.
Look at writing a eulogy as a very personal honor. Not just anyone is asked to be the spokesperson for another person’s life. It is your opportunity to be the best and most heartfelt speaker you can be.
Commemorate someone in a unique digital way on Everlasting Footprint. Say everything you couldn’t say in your eulogy, and more.
Editing by Kelsey Satalino.