When a friend recently passed away, my first thought was, whoever is selected to eulogize her will have one tough job, because her life impacted so many diverse people and charities, not to mention the plethora of awards she received throughout her lifetime. Her best friend did the honors and though it was extemporaneous, she delivered what I consider, the perfect eulogy. She clearly understood the difference between a eulogy and merely telling stories about our friend. A eulogy takes a broad view, and while it is personal, it goes beyond the eulogist’s private relationship with the deceased. When a speaker talks at a memorial or funeral service it is their personal perspective, but a eulogist is tasked with presenting a shared story, reflecting on the commonly held experience of the deceased.
With many memorial services now taking place outside a church setting, without a prescribed liturgy, rites and protocols, crafting a memorial service can be a challenge. I have witnessed services with particularly good ritual, and a nice selection of elements including both speakers and a eulogy. I have also witnessed services made up of entirely speakers, with a master of ceremonies, rather than a liturgist. Whatever the structure of the service there is only one eulogist, no matter how many people are speaking. A word of caution, when there are too many unchecked speakers, repetition can become problematic, and the attention span of the listeners wanes quickly. Storytelling is different than eulogizing, the former lending itself to less casual settings like a shared meal after the public services. Despite my friend’s rare gift to speak extemporaneously, I urge eulogist and speakers alike to prepare their remarks.
One method I use for writing a eulogy includes these steps: first, speak to several people who knew the deceased to identify a common thread. Perhaps it is the deceased’s kindness or generosity. This thread becomes the theme. Next, find something that personifies the theme, a quote, short reading, or an incident from the person’s life. Then organize the stories, life experiences and special events of the person’s life, weaving them together with supporting material on the theme. Conclude by reflecting on how we can emulate this special characteristic in our lives, hence keeping the spirit of the deceased alive. This is only one approach to writing a eulogy.
A eulogy should be delivered by someone who knew and loved the deceased. However, as presiding minister, I have delivered the eulogy that family members crafted, but preferred not to read. This also works well in situations where there are either too many good choices or there are no good choices for a eulogist. I have seen parents deliver their child’s eulogy, children their parent’s, and small groups of siblings deliver a parent’s eulogy. It is good to limit speakers to three, and the eulogist should follow the speakers. Opening it up to those present who have not prepared remarks presents its own set of problems. In situations where storytelling is spontaneous and the sole element of a gathering, having a master of ceremonies is important.
Some things do not belong in a eulogy, such as stories that are personal, embarrassing, or contain secrets. More than once I have seen a speaker inadvertently embarrass or upset family members with tales meant to be humorous but were not received as such. Speakers and eulogists should always have someone review their content to check for anything that could be awkward.
Honoring a person’s life is a major objective of a funeral, memorial service, church ritual, or celebration of life, but there are other purposes such as commending the deceased to God, laying their body to rest, and beginning the healing work of grief for mourners. While many people consider the eulogy the highlight of the service, it should be worked seamlessly into the whole.
Death ends a life, not a relationship. At the end of the day, a good eulogy honors the past and animates the future of that relationship.