Cliff’s funeral was a lesson in what not to do.
Cliff was my husband’s step-brother. In the midst of a divorce, Cliff discovered he had brain cancer; within two years of diagnosis he was dead, leaving behind a young daughter, a devastated mother, and four siblings, one of whom had been in charge of Cliff’s end-of-life care.
No funeral arrangements were discussed or planned prior to Cliff’s death; in consequence the overwhelmed and grieving siblings chose a minister at random who they had never met and who had never met Cliff to present the eulogy. Throughout the five-minute eulogy the minister kept calling Cliff by the wrong name – sometimes Carl, sometimes Cal. And the minister focused on “damnation” - something Cliff did not believe in. During the 15-minute funeral, no funny or poignant stories were told, no opportunity was given for memories to be shared, and no mention was made of why Cliff would be missed and by who; in consequence no tears were shed – and no emotions expressed or shared - by the stunned mourners.
As my husband said after the service, “How am I supposed to feel sad or grieve when all I feel right now is angry?” My husband and I made an agreement then and there to “do better” if we were ever called upon to put together a memorial service; eight years later that call came when Cliff’s mother, Barb, suddenly died.
Some Guidelines for Writing a Eulogy
A eulogy is a short speech given at a funeral or memorial service to honor someone who has died. Writing and delivering a eulogy can seem like a daunting task, especially if you feel you are neither a writer nor a public speaker. Here are some guidelines to make the task easier, using the eulogy I wrote for Barb as an example.
Gather with Family and Friends to Gather Information and Stories
After Barb died, her children and husband/my father-in-law requested that I deliver the eulogy. I knew what Barb meant to me and what I would miss in her absence, but as the designated sole eulogy presenter I wanted a clear understanding of what was important to others so I requested an informal family and friends meeting to gather information and stories. As we shared a meal of pizza, beer and wine, Barb’s children talked about Barb’s love of stray cats and rescue dogs, how Barb had baked bread every week throughout their childhood, how Barb was “more Martha Stewart than Martha Stewart,” the dignity and grace with which Barb traveled the difficult road of young widowhood, and Barb’s courage in going back to school to pursue a degree in nutrition after their father died.
With each story shared I felt less pressure regarding getting the eulogy right. And with each story I felt a sense that the healing process was beginning in the here and now. If there isn’t time or it isn’t possible to gather in person to share memories and stories for the eulogy, consider asking close friends and relatives for help via zoom, email or a phone call.
Some Writing Tips
Some key elements to include when writing a eulogy are:
1. Start by mentioning your relationship to the deceased. Those assembled to pay tribute to your loved one will want to know who you are and why you’re standing before them. Introduce yourself, state your relationship to the deceased, and indicate why you are delivering the eulogy (Did you ask to deliver it? Did the family ask you?).
After sharing my name, I began Barb’s eulogy by saying I was married to Barb’s stepson, Michael, and that while Barb was technically my step-mother-in-law, we always dropped the step because in every way she was my mother-in-law, a second mother to me. I also let mourners know that Barb’s current husband and children had asked me to deliver the eulogy; I then mentioned each family member by name.
2. Next: give structure to the mid-section - the heart - of the eulogy. A good eulogy feels meaningful to others and serves many purposes. It can provide mourners with a way to define and acknowledge: loss emotions; the uniqueness of the deceased; specifics of what has been lost and why that loss hurts – is of personal and/or collective significance; lessons learned from the life of the deceased. With that in mind, the mid-section or heart of the eulogy can include stories and anecdotes illustrating your loved one’s character, best qualities, values they held dear, and biggest accomplishments.
For example, distilling what Barb’s children had told me in our pre-funeral get-together (and noting who had told me what story), I related some favorite family anecdotes, such as:
Barb was soft-hearted when it came to stray cats and rescue dogs. One day a dirty, scrawny white cat scratched at the back door of the family home looking for food. Barb fed the cat so, of course, the cat returned day after day looking for more food. Eventually Barb invited the cat into the house, washed her and named her Pasha. The cat went on to become part of the family, living for 26 more years.
Showing rather that telling can be an effective way to draw people into what you’re saying. Kindness and compassion were two qualities that Barb had and valued. This story illustrates Barb’s kindness and compassion without having to use the words kindness and compassion.
After sharing family stories I told anecdotes conveying what Barb had meant to me personally: how Barb turned me on to reading mystery novels and gardening; our shared love of cooking for family gatherings; and more.
Note: None of us is perfect – it isn’t necessary to glorify your loved ones in order for your fellow funeral attendees to appreciate what is being lost in your loved one’s passing. Frustrations and faults can be touched upon in a kind, compassionate and accepting way - and with humor. For example, Barb prided herself on “being more Martha Stewart than Martha Stewart” leading her to be reluctant to share recipes with “the competition” - meaning me or any other woman! More than once Barb shared one of her recipes with me, leaving out a key ingredient. When I asked her about this she said without embarrassment, “I don’t want you to be known for my signature dishes!” I told this story at Barb’s memorial to much laughter.
3. End on a consoling and meaningful note. It can be challenging to know how to end a eulogy; thinking in terms of consolation and meaning can be helpful. Song lyrics, poems, prayers, and famous quotes that are descriptive of your loved one’s values and the meaning they brought to your life and the lives of the gathered mourners can be effective and connecting.
The words to The Desiderata, a well-known spiritual text were meaningful to Barb’s family, hanging framed on the wall of every kitchen in every home Barb lived in. I told the mourners this and then read The Desiderata to end the eulogy.
Giving the Eulogy
Here are some short and simple guidelines for presenting a eulogy:
You don’t have to be perfect. Good will abounds at funerals and life memorials. People are there to listen to what you have to say without judgment; they are there to share in loss and pay tribute. It’s okay if you are nervous and every word you say doesn’t come out just right. Your good intentions will create heartfelt connections – this is what your fellow mourners will appreciate and remember.
And it is okay to cry – your fellow mourners will accept your tears with compassion and understanding. Near the end of my eulogy for Barb I felt tears well up and blurted out, “Oh no, I’m going to cry.” One of Barb’s best friends was sitting near the front row of the church and said loudly so that I and everyone else could hear, “It’s okay sweetheart, cry if you need to.”
Eulogy length. Are you the sole eulogy presenter or will others also be speaking? Answering this question can help determine the length of your eulogy. A good guideline: 2 – 5 minutes if you’re not the only speaker (enough time to state your connection to the deceased and tell 1- 3 anecdotes); and 7-10 minutes if you are the sole speaker. Reading the eulogy aloud while timing yourself can be helpful in knowing if editing is required.
It’s okay to use notes. Make it easy on yourself: write everything down and either read what you have written or refer to what you have written. This will help calm your nerves and keep you focused and on track.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Go over your speech several times prior to the day of the funeral and then again the morning of. This will give you more confidence when delivering your lines – and it will help you sound more natural.
Writing a Eulogy for a Difficult Person
When a difficult person or someone who has hurt you dies, it can be challenging to know how to approach writing and delivering a eulogy. You always have the option of opting out of being a presenter. If, however, you choose to say a few words, guidelines and eulogy examples can be found in the blog, Grieving the Death of Someone Who Hurt You.