Tips for a Moving Eulogy
While I love writing and leading custom remembrance ceremonies for people or their animal companions in Tucson, I enjoy assisting others in the art of doing so as well. I offer consulting for families who may be planning a memorial or celebration of life anywhere, by assisting them with creating their own meaningful ceremony script to deliver themselves. I am also an instructor for the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, currently leading a course in Funeral Celebrancy and Ceremonies for Healing. Recent sections we explored in class and subsequent conversations with students, combined with this article I just read, compelled me to pen this post.
You might agree it is a fortunate occasion to hear a thoughtful, well-crafted and meaningful eulogy. (I’m guessing you might also agree it is a rare occasion?) Rather than delve into why I think this may be so, I’ve got some tips on how to make it so! Eulogizing a life can feel daunting. So, reverting to a chronological-style obit presentation of a life often becomes the default approach. Here are a few ideas on how to depart from this mode:
- Ask yourself, “What did it mean for _______ to live?” This gets to the heart of why we write and share eulogies: reflecting on the legacy this person leaves us to reconcile. We pause. We learn from their example: their opportunities, relationships or even sometimes, their struggles.
- What stories bring his or her essence into the room? Storytelling may be the most powerful tool we have for conveying a legacy. Vignettes from a life, in full color and sensory description, bring the essence of a person right into the room. When a eulogy is moving and truly stirs emotions, we feel closer to the honoree. We can feel his or her presence through our senses and our memories.
- Be daring with your narrative. Weave in actual quotes from the deceased and the people who were caregivers or were close throughout life. The article I cited earlier, including a eulogy excerpt from the author about his mother, offers masterful examples of bright dialogue, like this:
Easily bored, my mother wanted mothering to be edifying. If it was merely tedious, she didn’t have the patience for it. Instead of plying me with food like the stereotypical Jewish mother, by my teenage years she declared that she was so sick and tired of answering my incessant questions about what food was on hand that food was thereafter off limits as a topic of conversation between us. From then on, she proclaimed, she and I would speak only of literary matters.
“So,” I would say, sauntering into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door, “do you think Camus liked bologna? Think Sartre would have enjoyed it if there’d been any mustard to go with it?”
She would cackle and call me a horse’s ass. And in my dubiously affectionate fashion, I had a name for her, too. I called her “The Duchess.” For she was also the most refined person I knew, sensitive to language and music and art, attuned to every nuance of expression and gesture.
- Don’t shy away from the tough stuff. Lightly touch upon what may have been challenging about the honoree’s character. If the eulogy sanctifies a person we know did not live as a saint (and who does?), it is distracting and falls flat upon the listeners’ ears. Again, this passage from ‘A Thousand Shades of Life’ illuminates my point:
But her mothering was spotty, full of static-y offs and ons, like a wire in a loose connection — sometimes yes, more often no. My other name for her was “Motherly” — because she wasn’t, with me, anyway. We had a shortage of tender moments between us; they were usually more operatic — high hilarity, or threats and recriminations. But there was one moment that was so gentle that even years later it shines with a dull glow.
Compelling, yes? You really want to keep reading/listening. And something about this naked honesty might even resonate with you, too.
I certainly don’t wish the task of writing a eulogy upon anyone, anytime soon. If you are in a context where you need to however, my hope is you find these tips helpful. And at the very least, you feel inspired by the fantastic writing I’ve shared.