This weeks blog post is bought to you by Edwin Quilliam.
I’ve been to a few funerals in my day. I’ve been involved in the funeral industry for around ten years. I’ve lead around eighty funeral services in the past three or so years… and a few before that as well. So I’ve heard and presented quite a number of eulogies over that time.
Now I’m not proposing that a funeral service or the eulogy delivered as part of a funeral service is a performance but I do strongly believe that a eulogy should be prepared and delivered in such a way that it is engaging, somewhat entertaining whilst covering off on some basic components.
By way of definition, does this help?
“A eulogy is a speech or writing in praise of a person, especially one who recently died. It is a speech given at a memorial or funeral service that commemorates and celebrates the life of the deceased. It is essentially a way of saying farewell to a person who has passed away by expressing and sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences that honour and respect the deceased.”
One eulogy I remember very well and no doubt everyone who was present that day does as well, was delivered by a close family member who was very creative, artistic and engaging. The first few minutes were very entertaining, the first ten minutes had us intrigued, after the first half an hour we were starting to tune out and by the time forty-five minutes had passed I was well zoned out, and it still wasn’t finished. Take-home message: make it as performance-based as you like but also make it succinct, punchy and memorable (for the right reasons).
I have found the best eulogies are sprinkled with tears and laughter. They should be as the person’s life was. There are not too many people whose lives aren’t sprinkled with happy times, sad times, hilarious moments, stressful experiences, momentous occasions, devastating tragedies and many more. A good eulogy will reflect their life experiences even if it doesn’t elaborate on them all. Because, of course, it can’t.
It is amazing the amount of ground that can be covered in six to ten minutes if a eulogy is properly prepared and well delivered.
I usually find that a person’s life story has a certain theme. If I am to prepare and present a eulogy I generally spend an hour or so talking with family members and sometimes other people who knew and loved the deceased person and madly scribble notes most of that time. When I sit down to write their story it is useful to go over the notes and mark them. I will mark the characteristics/attributes of the person with one colour. Then I will see if their life story slots into eras or sections or emphases and mark relevant things accordingly. Things that highlight the outstanding feature of their life and would make a powerful ending, I will mark specially. Basically, I look for the themes of a person’s life.
Most often I do not start with, ‘John was born on 6th February 1945 to Bill and Joan in Perth, WA……’ and work through their life in finely tuned chronological order. I will usually begin with some story, event or characteristic that is a feature of their life and then work their life story into the main body of the eulogy, sometimes in no particular order at all.
Like any good speech, a eulogy needs a strong opening, good structure in the body of the speech and a strong, memorable ending. A good way to end is with a brief summary of what has been said and highlight their family relationships, if they were positive, and they generally are.
I strongly recommend that a family member presents a eulogy. Now that is a BIG ask for many people but with lots of encouragement and as much help as they think they need, there is usually someone who can do it. I don’t always insist on this myself when I am asked to conduct a service and am asked to do the eulogy as well. But I have spoken to one experienced funeral celebrant and seen a documentary of another who both insist the family take this role and are prepared to give all the time, assistance and encouragement required for family to be involved in doing so (See the doco, ‘Zen and the art of dying’). As hard as it can be, it is a very fulfilling and healing thing to do and I would like to get to the stage where I am able to at least strongly urge my families to do their own. A family member or the celebrant standing close by to place a hand on their shoulder and whisper assurance will help them get through the hard, emotional times. People don’t regret speaking at a funeral, they can regret not speaking.
Some of the memorable eulogies presented by families have been shared. All the siblings or all the deceased’s children or grandchildren can follow each other to the lectern and say their piece. And it works very well for them all to stand together and ‘tag team’ the entire presentation. That way they all feel the reassurance of each other and can offer a hand of comfort if needed.
I trust this is of some help if you are struggling to find the courage to present a eulogy for a loved one or know that you may be asked to do one sometime soon down the track. And I’m sure you are aware that there are many more resources online to help you. The most important requirement is to have the people around you who you can rely on to give you every help and encouragement you need.