How to write a Eulogy
If you find yourself lost for words when faced with writing a eulogy, perhaps our editor's advice on how to go about writing a eulogy will be of help. Please note that not all celebrants allow eulogies during the funeral service, so please make sure to ask for permission to deliver a eulogy.
Someone you love or care deeply about has died and you have been asked to say a few words at the funeral. It can be a daunting task, which is probably why it seems to be becoming rarer, but it can also be rewarding and fulfilling, not only for the person doing it but also for the family and friends of the deceased.
A eulogy, a word from Greek roots meaning roughly, ‘speak well of’, is a tribute to and a celebration of the life of the deceased and is usual spoken at the funeral. It should be short, three of four minutes at the most and can be sombre and humorous, sad and happy and even dramatic, often all at the same time.
Drama can be very effective, but is hard to carry off well. If you ever saw the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, I’m sure you remember John Hannah’s stunning rendition of W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’, the one that starts ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Stop the dog from barking with a juicy bone’. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Some famous eulogies had drama from the opening words. At Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral his friend and protégé Jawaharlal Nehru began with this, ‘Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere’. And Abraham Lincoln said of a fellow statesman and presidential candidate, ‘Alas, who can realise that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realise that never again that majestic form shall rise in the council-chambers of his country to beat back the storms of anarchy which may threaten, or pour the oil of peace upon the troubled billows as they rage and menace around?’ Stirring stuff.
Humour has its place too. At the memorial service for comedian Ronnie Barker in London’s Westminster Cathedral the cross was accompanied up the aisle by four candles (or fork ´andles, if you prefer) a reference to a famous sketch in one of his shows. In his eulogy, comedian Ronnie Corbett told the story of when Barker first went into a private hospital in North London for tests on his ailing heart and told the porter pushing his wheelchair that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there, “Oh, we’re very, very discreet in here,” the porter assured him. “In fact, we had Danny La Rue in on Thursday.”
Most of all though, a eulogy is a cathartic experience, for you and for the deceased’s family and friends. It is an opportunity to remember the good things about the life just ended and to face the emotions of sadness and loss, fondness and love and remembered joy. Here are a few tips to help you along.
- A eulogy is not a biography and you don’t have to cover every aspect of the deceased’s life. Use your own memories and impressions and, if you feel you want to, ask family and friends for their stories, then name those who contribute.. ‘Uncle Joe told me..’.
- Don’t forget that you’re not on your own. It’s not a theatrical performance (although it’ll probably feel like one) and the audience will be on your side. Make sure you have water to drink while you are giving the eulogy and take a moment to breathe deeply and focus yourself before you start. If you have to stop in the middle to compose yourself, don’t panic.
- Remember that your audience are in the same emotional state. Give yourself a minute to recover your composure. Take a drink of water and carry on.
- Choosing a theme, or two or three minor themes, will help you to focus. Perhaps the deceased’s character can be brought out by their love of a sport, or their involvement with children, brothers and sisters, parents or a particular cause. If you can, try and show how their character influenced their choices in life.
- A eulogy is not a whitewash of negative character traits, but it’s not an opportunity to point them out either. Few of us are saintly, but the eulogy should concentrate on what was positive in a life. Omit the bad things if you can, there’ll be plenty of discussion of those later. If it’s not possible to talk about the deceased without mentioning something negative, try and put it in context.. ‘He fought his temper, but he was sometimes on the losing side..’.
- Don’t be afraid to use poetry or quotations. If they mean something to you, friends and family in the context of the deceased then it doesn’t matter if it’s the words to ‘the Birdy Song’ or ‘Danny Boy’. This is remembrance from the heart, not great oratory, but do try to avoid clichés like ..’We are gathered here today..’, ‘..They never had a cross word..’, or ‘..She was a friend to everyone..’.
- Think about the big achievements in the deceased’s life, the hurdles overcome, the milestones reached. And then add in the little things that made them who they were, their fondness for collecting beer mats, or an addiction to Maeve Binchy. Remember a time they were happy and a time they were sad and mention the people they were especially close to, giving, if you can, incidents or stories that illustrate that closeness.
- Write your eulogy in a form that will help you to deliver it. For some people, it’s enough to put the major points on ‘prompt cards’ and then fill out the stories at the time. Other people prefer to write the whole thing out, word for word. Whichever you do, it is important to practise your delivery. If you write the speech out, try and write as you would speak and don’t worry too much about grammar. We rarely speak in proper sentences anyway and you should sound as if you’re speaking the eulogy, not reading it.
- Make sure you get it right! If you are going to mention people, places or events that you don’t have first hand knowledge of, check names, facts and details first. There is nothing more distressing to someone at a funeral for a loved one than to hear their name given wrongly in the address.
- You can end with a farewell to the deceased or a piece of music or a reading to remember them by or that was important to them. If you choose music or a reading, you could explain to those who might not know why it was important and what it means.
William Cowper said that ‘Grief is itself a medicine’ and writing and delivering a eulogy can help the healing process for you and your audience. Just remember, everyone’s on your side.
Finally, not all celebrants allow eulogies during the funeral service, so please make sure to ask for permission to deliver a eulogy.