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Eulogies & Personal Tributes

Writing and giving a eulogy is a way of saying farewell to someone who has died that, in a sense, brings the person to life in the minds of the audience.

For some people, the opportunity to speak during the funeral service about the person they knew is a welcome one – but many of us still do not realise this is possible and believe that eulogies are just for the famous. As funeral directors, we know they’re being delivered at all kinds of funerals every day of the year.

There is no right or wrong way to write a eulogy: each is as unique as the person giving it and the person it describes. But even if you’re used to speaking in public, finding words to say can be difficult because of the special circumstances of a funeral. You may be coping with your own grief. You may feel a heavy burden of responsibility to get it ‘right’, in terms of both content – what to say – and tone – how to say it. You may prefer to ask someone else to write it, or perhaps have them on standby to give it for you. Whatever your thoughts, you should not feel pressured into giving a eulogy or guilty if you feel unable to do so.

Think of the people

Start by thinking of the people you are addressing as well as the person you are describing: the eulogy is about the person, but for the audience. Key thoughts about your audience:

Who are they? Are the audience family and close friends only, or others too? There may be specific things to say or avoid.

How will they feel? Listening to you will obviously be highly emotional for those closest to the person, and some people will be in tears. But this doesn’t mean the eulogy should be mournful and depressing. People will be grateful if what you say is uplifting and inspiring.

What do they want to hear? Most people want to hear good things about a person who has died, and forget the bad things. But people don’t become saints just because they die. Your audience will want to feel you have captured the essence of the person – what makes them special. So be honest, but selective.

How long should it be? Even in the circumstances of a funeral, many people find it difficult to listen to one person talking for a long time, so a eulogy should really be over in a matter of minutes – just how many is a matter of individual choice.

Think of the person

A good eulogy doesn’t just tell the audience about the person – in a sense it brings the person to life in their imagination and gives them something by which to remember them. You can do this by telling stories about the person: the happy things, the funny things, the sad things, the unusual things that happened, which sum up their life. Talking about these and the enduring qualities which describe what they were really like as a person, will help you build a picture for the audience with your words. Some suggestions:

Think big: What are the major moments in youth, middle or old age, at work or play, at home or away, alone or with others? What are the highlights of their life story? Were they committed to something? What were their talents?

Think small: What are the little characteristics – what he or she did or said, habits and foibles, pastimes and passions, likes and dislikes? One small detail can be worth a thousand words.

Think sad: What were the challenges, the difficult times? How did they cope and what does this say about them? Should reference be made to the manner of their death if it was particularly shocking or untimely?

Think happy: When were they at their best and happiest? What gave them pleasure?

Think inside: How do you feel about them? What were they to you? What sort of things did you do with them?

Think outside: Who else was close to them? How do they feel about the person?

You may have all the information you need, or you may want to speak to other people close to the person to get precise details and check your facts. You may have arranged the funeral as a friend of the deceased, not knowing too much about them and having no relatives to turn to for information, in which case you can base your eulogy on your impressions of them as a person. Once you have the material and have thought about it in relation to the people you are talking to, you are ready to start putting it together.

Writing the Eulogy

The hardest task in preparing any talk is often not so much deciding what you’re going to say as deciding how to organise it into a structure with a beginning, middle and end. There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some suggestions about preparation.

Do I write it word for word? Yes, if it helps. But if you do, speak it out to yourself as you’re writing, otherwise your words may sound stilted when you actually come to deliver it. When we speak normally, we don’t speak in perfect sentences. What’s important isn’t the grammar, but the points you are making and the stories you are telling. So if you can, don’t write word for word, but put key points on a card to have with you. An exception to this is where you are using a piece of poetry or song, in which case you may want the exact words to hand.

Where do I start? If you don’t know how to start, don’t waste time worrying about it. Write the middle first – the main part – and think about how to begin afterwards.

How do I structure it? Decide the best order for what you’re going to say:

  1. Chronological: This would suit the life-story approach, beginning with their childhood and working through the highlights of their life.

  2. Reverse chronological: Beginning with the present or recent past, and then working backwards.

  3. Three-point plan: Decide three key things to say and the order for saying them.

  4. Thematic: Choose one big thing and give examples, anecdotes and stories to explain and illustrate it.

How will I begin? Avoid clichés like ‘We are gathered here today…’ and begin as you mean to go on, with something special to that person. In fact, you don’t really need an introduction: people know who you are talking about and why everyone’s there. It may be easiest and best to get straight to your point. For example: ‘There are many things for which she will be remembered, but what we will never forget is her sense of humour…’

How will I end? If you intend to play a piece of music or give a reading after your eulogy, you can end by explaining why you’ve chosen it. If not, then a good way could be to end with a short sentence of farewell, maybe the very last thing you said to them – or wanted to say to them – before they died.

Who can help me check my facts? Getting places, names and dates wrong can distract your audience, so make sure you check any factual information about the person.

Delivering the Eulogy

As with thinking and writing about the person, there is no right way to speak about them. But people sometimes do things, usually when they’re feeling nervous or self-conscious, which can interfere with the audience’s ability to follow and reflect on their words. The following suggestions may help you, especially if you have never spoken in public before:

  1. Wear clothes appropriate to the occasion, the audience and the person who has died. If you look out of place, you will only distract people from your words.

  2. Read your eulogy aloud as practice before the funeral ceremony, either to yourself or to a relative or friend This could help you polish the text as well as giving you greater control over your emotions on the day itself.

  3. Stand up to give the eulogy. Even though you may at first feel a little exposed, it helps people see and hear you better.

  4. Stand still and be calm. Fidgeting and nervous gestures will only distract people.

  5. Try not to read word for word. Or if you do, make sure you have written it to be spoken, not read.

  6. Speak slowly. When we are nervous, we tend to speak too quickly. By speaking slowly, you give yourself time to think and choose your words. You also give people time to take in and think about what you’re saying.

  7. Don’t worry if you find yourself losing your words or overcome with emotion. Pause, take a few deep breaths and carry on. There’s no requirement on you to give a slick and polished talk and people will be supportive.