Delivering a eulogy may be the most memorable thing you ever do for a deceased friend or loved one, so it’s worth taking a little time to get it just right. In some ways, it should be like the traditional best man’s roast at a wedding — personal and sincere with a touch of humor.
Brevity is also important. You want to capture the essence of the deceased without taking too much time. Think of how news reports are written; rather than telling everything that happened at a meeting or event, the reporter selects the one or two most significant or surprising things and then builds the story around them.
Keep in mind that those listening to you already know the basic biographical facts about the person being memorialized and they probably already think of that person as kind, loving, generous and modest. So while it’s OK to mention these fine points, it’s not necessary to dwell on them. It’s better to come up with an anecdote or personal memory that the mourners may not have known about but that will ring true to them.
At a recent funeral in Virginia, a husband eulogizing his wife recalled the moment he realized she didn’t know how to swim. It was just after he had grabbed her hand at a college fraternity party and jumped into the pool with her. “She started splashing around and making odd sounds,” he said, getting an affectionate chuckle from the crowd.
A day in the life
At a memorial service for Dave, a prominent trial lawyer at the Chicago Yacht Club, the adult son of the deceased spoke without notes as the sun set over Lake Michigan. He described a typical day in the life of his father. He chose a Sunday, when Dave made breakfast, cleaned his cast iron skillet and then organized an expedition to the post office in one of his vintage cars.
The son waited in the car while his father went inside and emerged beaming with a large envelope. Inside was a book about famous Civil War generals. “Dad, don’t you have two copies of that already?” he asked.
“Yes, but you can’t have too many. These are hard to find,” Dave replied, admiring his acquisition. Through that and other anecdotes, the son painted an intimate picture of the eccentric, brilliant attorney that many in the room had known only as clients or fellow litigators. As he wrapped up his remarks, the son — a successful software engineer and father of two — recalled that his father had never raised his voice or spoken harshly to him, even when he probably should have.
“I thought he should have been stricter, but I guess I turned out OK anyway,” he concluded.
Write it down
Although the lawyer’s son was able to deliver his remarks without notes, that’s not something many of us can or should attempt. Unless you are an experienced public speaker, you should write your eulogy and practice it several times. It’s easy to drift off-topic when ad libbing and with such an emotionally charged topic, you can easily let your feelings get the better of you.
As in most things, less is more when it comes to public speaking. Be brief, be informal and speak from personal experience whenever possible. Five minutes or so is plenty. For most people, that translates to about two and a half or three double-spaced pages.
One touching tribute was delivered by a young man named Jon at his grandmother’s funeral a few years ago. He remembered an experience from his teen years. While riding with his grandmother, she slammed into another car at a busy intersection. The front bumper of her car flew off and landed across the street. Passing motorists looked at the wreckage and glared at the teen, assuming he had been driving.
When the police arrived, they asked the grandmother for her license. Eyeing the bumper, lying beside the road with license plate still intact, she said, “Well, it’s right over there. Go look at it if you want to.”
The incident drew soft laughter from friends and family, each no doubt thinking of similar mishaps involving the grandmother, whose driving record was known to be somewhat spotty.
You can opt out
Finally, ask yourself whether you will really be able to deliver the eulogy. If you think you will become too emotional, there is nothing wrong with asking someone else to take your place. There is no rule that says the spouse, child or other close relative must be the eulogist. It can be a close friend, a business associate or a more distant relative.
If in doubt, discuss it with the clergy person, funeral director or whoever is officiating. The service is intended to comfort the bereaved, not subject them to more stress and potential embarrassment and it is OK for close relatives to opt out.
This is what happened at a recent memorial service in the St. Louis area. Jo, a youngish woman who had recently retired after many dedicated years as a Special Ed teacher was living a healthful, vegan lifestyle on a small farm with her collection of llamas, goats and miniature horses when she contracted a serious infection that rapidly turned into a fatal case of sepsis. So devastated were her family members that no one felt able to speak publicly.
They asked a retired priest who was a longtime friend of the deceased for advice. He delivered the eulogy himself, adding a few previously unknown details of the kindnesses, good deeds and extra efforts Jo had extended to her students and their families, sometimes at great emotional or financial cost to herself. It was a speech no family member could have made, since Jo had kept many of these good deeds to herself.
It’s not really that important who does the eulogy. What’s important is that they tell a good story, briefly and from the heart.
Want to read more? Here are a few articles that offer helpful tips and step-by-step advice: