Eulogy 101

Over the past few months, several people have asked me for advice on writing a eulogy. Although I have personally spoken at only two funerals and otherwise avoid them, I responded to each request as best I could. They were the friends or grandchildren or nephews of the deceased, sad but not dismantled by grief, grateful that my systematic approach organized their memories into a performable order. It is absurd, really, to shape and edit a life to fit a timeslot on an agenda. Yet each person wanted to do well and hoped to express something that would represent the other mourners who were not able to speak. I offered my ideas gently, straddling the gap between empathy and formula.  

This is what I told them: at first let thoughts wander, imagining mental snapshots of the person who has died. What was Uncle Joe wearing when they first met him? What did his voice sound like? What made him laugh? What about him made his family laugh? What was Uncle Joe’s favorite way to pass the time? What did the speaker and his uncle do together? Did their relationship evolve over the years? What did Uncle Joe love to talk about? Collect as many pictures as possible. Don’t feel bad if not all the memories are positive. Embrace a rich portrayal. It might be helpful to reminisce with another person; it might be more productive to spend quiet time alone. Jot notes. Look over the notes and let them lead to more images and stories.

Search for a pattern in the memories that can be framed by a single sentence: “My grandmother accepted everyone unconditionally” or “Bill was a teacher and a coach his whole life” or “Aunt Millie loved to watch things grow.” Choose three or four stories that illustrate this point, make them as visual as possible. Or choose a handful of stories and simply say: “What I will always remember about my friend is . . .” or “I want to share with you my favorite memories of grandpa.” It does not need to be any more complicated than this.

Write an outline, but have a full text ready, just in case emotion wipes all out all preparation. Practice. Have someone give suggestions. People want so badly to be accurate and profound but I kept reminding them that eulogies are not sermons or history lessons. Their purpose is to witness the impact of this person on their life. Strip out unnecessary details concerning location or chronology. Short and concrete is better than long and abstract. Their listeners want to see and hear their loved one remembered through a fond but authentic lens. The true voice of experience, however plaintive, is weight enough.  

Last week I was thinking about the academic manner in which I gave my rather morbid support. It is ironic that I could nonchalantly consider death through the distance of essay construction. In reality, I am tongue-tied around bereaving people and inconsolable the few times I have lost an extended family member. I am a sham. One who talks the talk of peaceful tribute but walks with urgent fear curdling in my gut; looking frantically both ways, flinging my arm across the passenger’s seat to protect, pleading to the universe: please not me or anyone I know.

The catalyst for this reflection was a newborn infant. I was holding her on my lap, watching her delicate nose crinkle with some unknown discomfort, blue-black eyes gradually focusing on my face with dawning interest. Her expression was both empty and full. The beginning of everything that will become her; some of it already in place but dormant, some to be gathered in every movement she will make from now on. I chided my own triteness; thinking of life and death while holding a baby reeks of the same artificial profundity that I edit out for others. Yet it is hard to hold a five day old human and not wonder what her stories will be. It is hard to cradle her in my own middle age and not wonder what my stories have been. It is hard not to drift uncharacteristically maudlin at the realization that this little woman may one day be crafting pieces of me for a funeral audience; trying to decipher what in her memory will hold interest and what is merely distracting trivia.  

The advice turned backwards made me laugh. The baby girl hiccuped and waved her arms. I telepathically assured her latent adult self that she could ramble as long as she’d like at my funeral. I would not be there to judge. We toasted inevitability with milk-sated grunts. I was content, briefly, to compose a rough draft together, she and me at 2:00 a.m., unabridged, our faces smudged by drool and traces of sleep.

11 responses to “Eulogy 101”

  1. An acquaintance asked me last week if I could recommend some sources for inspirational or meditative quotes on the subject of mortality — she’s writing an anticipatory eulogy for her father, who is close to death. I was a little weirded out — I don’t really know her very well, I guess she just thinks of me as a literate person who would be able to think of something good. All that really came to mind was Psalms — I haven’t read it in a long time but that is probably the first place I would look if I wanted eulogy quotations. I guess. But her dad was not a religious guy, she didn’t think that would be appropriate.

  2. PB says:

    That is how all my conversations begin – hey PB, you read, give me the perfect quotation. They don’t trust themselves to speak. That is when I launch into my spiel, forget quotes, no one wants to hear what King David thought, they want to hear you! They are always dubious. This being said, I want someone to quote ee cummings, Salinger and JK Rowling (and yes I will provide the exact references) at my funeral so I am a big liar.

  3. Yeah, that’s sort of what I was thinking when she asked me — a quotation is only useful insofar as it expresses what you the eulogist want to say, so instead of looking for a quotation, figure out what you want to say — but I didn’t really have my head together enough to say that.

  4. Dave says:

    I do kind of wish, though, that someone would piece together some kind of contemporary equivalent of the Requiem Mass but without all the annoying Christian stuff — an accrual of meaningful and sometimes difficult texts, old and new.

  5. Marleyfan says:

    What an interesting topic. I was recently asked to speak at the funeral for the mother of one of my best friends (see: My friend has disappeared, part 1, January 5th). Two other speakers talked about religion, and many other things, but they didn’t really talk about the person who died. I spoke almost entirely about her- what I remembered, what I liked, how she treated people, what she meant to me, etc. I also talked about her husband and children, and what she meant to each of them. This is one of my favorite things about Mormon funerals, when the speakers relish in the persons life and his/her passions. Make it personal! A few good quotes are always good, but make them relevant to the individual. I’ll never forget my grandfathers funeral, where a close family friend stood up in the back of the room (when the “floor” was opened to anyone who wanted to say something), and sang the first line of a song that was relevant to my grandfather, it was precious…

  6. Ivy says:

    Personal is good. I had to eulogise my partner a couple of years back. At his burial we used quotes from him to remember him. Some although irrelevant, made a good goodbye FROM him. At his memorial I talked about his illness, as I hadn’t been with him that long and it took up more than half of our relationship. I wanted people to know how brave he had been, because I was the only one who had been there, dealing with it at 2AM, all the gross aspects of a long illness, all the boredom of hospital appointments, and seeing him respond to it with humanity, bravery and fortitude. (Of course, he was awful at times too, although I feel it is best to be gentle with such things, none of us know how we’ll be til we get there.) I wanted people to know that he was afraid, but that he kept on living until he was done, a really remarkable thing to do with a debilitating, painful illness like cancer. Because he hid it from everyone except his sister and me, and only I was there in the nights, which is when everything goes to custard. I think all you can do is speak from the place you shared. And not worry about crying when you do it. I hate to cry in front of people, I’d rather gnaw off my own arm. But I read out a eulogy from his best friend, and then I did my own, and I’ll never regret the effort that took me. I think all you can do is provide the loving truth.

  7. Jane says:

    I love watching people deliver eulogies. It tell so much about the speaker. I like your systematic approach. Very helpful. Next time someone needs help on that subject, I will refer them here.

  8. You are a excellent writer. I like the draw very vivid, original, pictures and tie them seamlessly in to your theme.

  9. PB says:

    Thank you Gary and Happy Birthday to you!!!!!!!!!

  10. Marleyfan says:

    9. Thank for the B-Day wishes P.B.; #8 is from Gary Jr. (formerly known as Demosthenes).

  11. Thanks for this. Saturday a man I knew died — someone I did not know too well but felt a lot of admiration for. I thought of this post while I was blogging a rememberance of him — not able to get to his funeral this is the closest I can come to a eulogy. It felt good to think of the times I had talked with him and remember his personality.