Writing a Eulogy
Writing a Eulogy. As I grow older and attend more funerals I have come to regard eulogies as a unique and healing form of writing. The centerpiece of most funeral and memorial services, the eulogy is a profoundly valued service prepared under stressful circumstances and delivered to a great many persons at a trying time for all. It is a uniquely public opportunity to honour a life and soothe the living. The eulogy pays tribute to loved ones while helping friends and family process their grief.
If you have volunteered or been tasked with eulogizing a loved one, do take heart, excellent resources are just a Google search away. The eulogy is a deeply personal story you create and deliver. And while there are endless options for content and style, let’s look at some tried and true steps to aid you in your journey.
Begin by organizing your thoughts and feelings. Remember to keep your audience front and centre as you decide what you will say and the order in which you will say it. While there are many different approaches to writing, find the one that works best for you. Start by writing down a few bullet point ideas, or topics you wish to cover. This list becomes the first draft. Taking breaks from writing enables you to reread each draft with fresh eyes to reconsider and perhaps reorder the points in your outline. Ironically, taking frequent breaks from writing will save you time in the long run. When you are contended with the topics in the outline, it’s time to turn each of them into polished sentences. Take a deep breath. You can do this.
Here are some questions to help guide your writing:
What do I want my audience to feel after hearing my eulogy? What are the most familiar things about the deceased I definitely want to cover? What new information about the deceased would family and friends find of interest? What did I most admire about them, and what stories might I share to illustrate those points? Who else will be speaking at the funeral? What will they be sharing?
Add in poems, anecdotes, quotations and personal observations you believe will resonate with your listeners. Can you envision people nodding their heads in agreement as you speak? Check your facts and then fill in any gaps you feel may need more work.
Each story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps you will begin with lines from a favourite poem of the deceased, then recount some stories and tributes before ending with another quote that will ring familiar to your audiences. The style and content you select is as individual as the person you are eulogizing.
Tone, Style and Length
While the tone, style and length of your eulogy are yours to decide, it is always good practice to acknowledge the audience throughout the eulogy. They are listening to you (and others who may speak) with appreciation and a longing to connect with and recognize the one they lost through your words and messages. Inserting some humour not only helps relieve tension and sadness, it can also paint a fuller picture of the deceased and how we experienced them. While there is no limit to how long you should speak, aim for somewhere between ten to twenty minutes.
Speak at a comfortable conversational pace – not too slowly and definitely not too quickly. Make eye contact with your audience from time to time. Stand close to the microphone and, if one is not available, speak at a volume sufficient for people in the back row to hear you.
Practice Makes Perfect
We write eulogies under tight timeframes and during periods of heightened emotional stress and anxiety. Asking a friend or family member to comment on early drafts will help you discover factual errors and other issues in time to fine tune your eulogy before the funeral.
Keeping it together
It is very common to feel the urge to break into tears or to feel unable to continue while delivering the eulogy. It can happen at any time and is a natural expression of sorrow at the loss of our loved one. Planning ahead for this possibility will help calm your nerves before and during your delivery. Some find it helpful to let emotions out during their practice sessions so that they may identify those parts of the eulogy that are more likely to interrupt their delivery. Others plan to pause or take a breath before and after speaking particular sentences. Having a volunteer ready to complete your eulogy if needed can be very reassuring.
Remember, there is no judgment. Everyone present is behind you and feeling deepest appreciation for the role you are playing in the funeral of our loved one.
Final thoughts…and you are on your way!
After the funeral is over check to see how the family may wish to share out your eulogy to a wider audience of friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours who were unable to attend the funeral online or in person. Also, give yourself full permission to grieve for your friend or family member. In eulogizing your loved one you have experienced your feelings of grief and loss in a special way.
Eulogizing a loved one is a special time-honoured role we are asked to play. It is a priceless privilege, a service to family and friends at a time of deep emotional upheaval. It plays an important role in helping us all process our grief.
David Shanks was a founding member of the Funeral Co-operative of Ottawa, recently retired from a long career in communication, marketing, and the development of international co-operatives.