A friend emailed. He told me that another friend had died suddenly, unexpectedly. He was in his forties. My friend has been asked to give the eulogy at his funeral.
‘What do I do? Where do I start? You’re the writer, you tell me.’
As it happens, I have written a eulogy myself. I wanted to give a speech at my step-father’s funeral. I wanted to talk about how much he meant to me. In the end, because of family circumstances, this became impossible, so instead I read his favourite poem and luckily, that summed up a lot of what I wanted to say about him anyway. I still have the speech I wrote, tucked away somewhere.
You never know when you might be called upon to give such a speech. Unexpected deaths happen all the time, and even if the death is expected, it’s still a tough call when you are asked by the chief mourner to stand up and ‘say a few words’. That makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it, that phrase? Like you can just burble out the right thing off the top of your head. No one does that. You have to plan. Here’s a handle on where to start:
- Think of a list of adjectives that best describe the deceased as you knew them. Don’t go overboard trying to make a huge list. Four or five will do.
- Now think of memories of them which illustrate that quality. Maybe your adjective is ‘kind’, and the memory might be an occasion when they sat up with you all night after a bad breakup, not really saying anything much, just listening to your sorrow and comforting you with their presence and understanding. Maybe ‘talented’ is the word, and the memory is of going to hear the premiere of their latest musical composition at a local concert hall. Perhaps ‘inept’ is the word, and your memory is of them falling into the river whilst trying to row a boat and impress everyone on the bank!
- Don’t choose too many words and memories. People at a funeral can’t sit through too much. Try three, and see if that gives you an overall picture of what meant most to you about the person.
- Think carefully about the situation. If someone has died young, or without fulfilling their potential, the audience might appreciate hearing of some lesson the deceased taught you that may serve as evidence of a legacy.
- People don’t like to hear ill of the dead. Don’t tell the mourners about the horrendously blue best man’s speech he gave at your wedding, or how she borrowed your best dress and left lipstick stains all over the hem. They don’t want to hear the small things any more than they want to hear that the deceased was a child-murderer or cheated on their spouse. We deify the dead, and only get angry at their shortcomings much later in the grieving process.
- If you are angry at the deceased, reflect on your anger carefully before you give your speech. If you don’t, your words might come across as bitter.
- Read your speech out aloud and practise it. Show it to sympathetic friends who you trust to say ‘you can’t say that!’, or ‘That’s perfect!’
- Don’t ramble on. Keep your speech short and to the point.
- Be fond, and include a gently amusing anecdote if you can. This diffuses tension and helps mourners think of the happier times.
- Expect to have a rollercoaster of feelings on the day. You may have trouble speaking at all without weeping. Or you may experience a sense of enormous calm descend on you, and give an Oscar-worthy performance. Or more likely, a bit of both. Either way, don’t judge yourself.
- Always try to end on a positive note, emphasising some way in which the deceased enriched the world with their presence, however brief.
That’s a few ideas off the top of my head. I hope that this is not something you are facing right now. If you are, please be assured you have my deepest sympathies. If you have written a eulogy yourself and have some tips, do please share them in the comments section.
This post was written with fondest love to Mad Mark the Maniac,