How to write a Eulogy

How-to-write-a-Eulogy

The speech you never want to have to give - a eulogy

The speech you never want to make. The Eulogy or speech at a funeral, wake or memorial service.

 

It can be an honor, a necessity or even a burden. The person you must speak about is usually a close relative or very good friend.  This makes the emotion of the speech intense possibly overwhelming and the speech bitter sweet.

 

I had the unfortunate experience of watching my husband and sister in law grapple with this just recently. They wanted no help or as they saw it interference, they were sure it “would all come to them”. Then as the day drew closer and closer they were panicking if they had the right content.  How could I say to them "look this is what you need to do, this is what works", when every minute or so the tissues where being used.

how to start writing a eulogy

When you are overcome with grief, disbelief, anger maybe, it’s hard to know where to start let alone end and what to leave out.  At least you want to do the deceased justice and celebrated their life.  You may want to select stories and antidotes that the audience will ‘enjoy’ listening to, smile and maybe even laugh at.

 

It’s a big big call especially on top of the waves of grief.

 

So where do you start and finish, what makes the cut what doesn’t.

Talk about it with other speakers

Firstly, it sounds awful but like any group presentation coordinate what you are going to say with other speakers, including the minister/priest/ rabbi.  Bounce around ideas and themes, stories or a period of the person’s life.  This has a few advantages.

The process of it will remind you of other stories or different angles or perspectives. Second You will understand how hard it is for the others and that you aren’t alone in your struggle.  Thirdly You won’t repeat the stories or steal each other’s thunder (yes, I know it’s not a competition but let’s be honest it’s no fun if someone tells ‘your’ story better than you even at a funeral)

Finally, it will make each story special and therefore reflect well on the person, which is the whole point.

 

I remember one of my grandmother’s eulogies was so short it was strange.  She had done a good job of being a mother and wife, and was the grandmother that spoilt her grandchildren with sweets and late movies, but she didn’t have seem to have stories we could tell at a funeral. I thought she deserved more time and more celebration. The other grandmother was of the same era, but we had stories to tell, adventures and special occasions. It wasn't rushed, the grandchildren shared stories and then choose you told what so there was no overlap or contradictions. Each shed new light onto who our grandmother was for our audience. The focus was off how she was towards the end of her 90 + years.

 

A discussion with the minister or person leading the service can be beneficial, is there a theme or common thread that they have picked up on and you can all highlight and celebrate.  Ultimately a eulogy is to celebrate the life of someone, possibly the last chance friends and family will have to learn their history and achievements.  So maybe one person wants to focus on a timeline, another the children, another work, another sport.

Stories in eulogies must have a point

The big call is can you make them light hearted and funny. When you least want to, can you recall something funny that can break the tension and shear grief in the room. But remember like other stories they must have a point even if they are rounded off "he was so proud of that he would want you all to know that and have a huge laugh"

Like any other speech each story must have a point.  And every point should have a story.  There is little value in listing off events without concluding and spelling out the purpose of the list.  The audience must be told what to think …. for example:

 

“These were only three of dozens of examples that I can think of, there are so many when Mum was putting others before herself and strangers before her family.  Generous and kind where her core qualities.  Her smile when doing these things is how I picture her now, how I remember her.  It made her so happy to help others in need.  They along with her grandchildren of course brought her the greatest joy”

 

Just rattling off memories is entertaining for a bit but it misses an opportunity to celebrate the person’s life, and give it meaning.  Listing off stories can be therapeutic for the speech writer but that isn’t the purpose of the eulogy. 

 

I went to one funeral of a friend killed in an accident.  It wasn’t a Christian funeral so there were no prayers or Hymns, just friends and family speaking.  I had a 10-hour flight to prepare my little bit and I had it pretty much figured out.  It included a poem excerpt we had once discussed so poignant as it was a metaphor for death and used in a famous teenage book and film for that purpose. Of course, a funny story was hard to relay but by the time my turn came something popped up from other speakers, I could give my version of the thing being discussed, and it was all news to them, they got a laugh when they least expected it.

 

We all learnt a lot about him and we realized he had a lot more to give but he had also crammed a lot in.  It was a life well lived and he was well loved and a many woman thought great kisser! 

Elogies should reflect the person

A funeral and the eulogies should also reflect the personality of the person it is for.  A stand out for this not being done was Princess Diana’s.  The emotions were raw, a young mother of two boys, one whom was the future King of Great Britain killed in a car accident.  Her brother Earl Spencer gave the Eulogy which he admits was fueled by grief and a lot of guilt.  It focused too much on the speculation of the moment and was influenced by the media frenzy.  I saw him speak about it years later, it was an excellent speech despite some of its sad content.  He said aside from regretting selling the rights to it so cheaply for the movie “The Queen” he understood it didn’t reflect Diana’s personality and what she would have wanted her boys to hear.

 

So, try to focus on what the deceased person would want people to hear.  If it was them would they make people laugh, tell silly jokes, have a sporting analogy for every situation, or a fishing story.  Make sure you tell it according to your audience, if there are young children (and possibly elderly or religious) leave out the R13 + stories and colourful language.

 

·      Remember to make sure you spell out to your grief-stricken audience the persons’ qualities and achievements.

 

·      Make sure every story has a point.

·      Give personal insights and try to make the odd joke, or amusing anecdote to lighten the mood.

 

·      Finally try to practice the speech. 

 

Have it printed out and the pages either numbered clearly or stapled together.  My father’s 20-minute eulogy for his mother was made even longer as he lost his place and muddled his pages.  It was painful to watch him recover trying not to miss anything.

 

The only thing I can tell you, is that when you are doing the eulogy you will realise that the cliché of “I would rather die than speak to a huge crowd” is utter nonsense.

 

 

Diana Thomson

SpeechMarks Coaching, Auckland