A man's dying is more the
survivors' affair than his own.
Mann, The Magic Mountain
A eulogy can be even more daunting to write
than an obituary; with it you not only express your own sorrow and
do your best to distill, encapsulate and articulate an entire life,
also help to
guide others through the loss you share.
Unlike obituaries, eulogies are meant to be
read aloud, while a transcript of it is sometimes made available
later online or in a memory-book. This is a challenge for many
people; not all of us are comfortable with public speaking. There's
also a knack to writing something that's meant to be both heard and
read; sometimes things sound very different from the way they look
on the page. While the obituary can just be a few facts, a eulogy
ideally has an arc, a trajectory - a beginning, middle and end: who
your loved one was and what life with them was like; what it is to
lose them; what
they left behind
for you to carry into the future.
First, sit down and make a list - either
alone or with family members - of your loved one's defining
characteristics: strong, generous, devout, insightful, talented,
funny, empathetic, never sent you away hungry, always
picked the perfect
present, taught you the meaning of honesty.
Next, write down a few words about what parts
of you relate to the deceased most closely. What did you share? Are
you braver for having known the deceased? Gentler? Did they mentor
you, guide you, save you, teach you, change you? In what part
of your life
will you feel their loss most sharply?
Then think of a few specific memories,
stories that exemplify
your loved one
and the kind of life they lived.
Even if this person wasn't easy to define,
you should be starting to see a bit of a central theme - a quality
or set of qualities that are really the core of who they were: a
nurturer, a teacher, a thinker,
a breath of
fresh air, an example for us all.
When you've got all
that in front
of you, it's time to start writing.
Happiness is beneficial for
the body but it is grief that develops the powers of the
~ Proust, The Past
The language of grief is harsh and beautiful,
devastating and uplifting. With it we lament those who have left us,
and also celebrate their life; through it we learn to better
appreciate our own short time here among those we love. These are
the moments -
and the words - that change us.
There's no set structure to a eulogy these
days, really. It's an entirely free-form art. Begin with whatever
you think will strike the right chord and then experiment with
dynamics, with the rise and fall of emotion within your speech. You
can start out strong and then pull back, for example, or begin
gently and build from there. The things you say can have a profound
effect on your listeners: you can break the surface-tension on their
grief so that they can express it and seek each other's comfort,
then help them to find moments of lightness in which the first
of hope and
healing can begin to unfurl and intertwine.
Try to keep your sentence structure simple
and conversational. Many people use loftier language to mark
momentous events; you can do that, too - just don't overwhelm
yourself with mouthfuls of words you don't use very often. You want
it to be comfortable to read and to hear. Some people write out
every word; others just put down a list of talking points to
stay on track
and use a more informal, stream-of-consciousness style.
You'll want to try to stay under five minutes
unless you have a strong reason to go longer. Time is strange and
elastic when you're in front of a crowd; sometimes it's over before
you know it, but it can go on and on and be very difficult to fill,
leaving you unfocused and uncomfortable. As you write, read it aloud
often - in front of someone if you think that'll help, or in front
of a mirror if you'd like to keep it private - and try to estimate
how long it's going to go. Rehearsing aloud will also help you hear
words or phrases you might have used too often and to pick out
monotonous or sing-song vocal patterns. It's also helpful to
practice on video; you can step back and watch yourself from another
perspective, which can help you to see and hear
all kinds of
things you didn't catch from the inside.
Just as a precaution you might want to have
someone else - preferably someone who isn't quite as deeply
emotionally involved, a family friend perhaps - poised to take over
and finish reading if you're overcome. You
probably won't need
it, but their presence can be reassuring.
Don't feel like you can't be lighthearted or
even funny. It's important to change the mood and tempo throughout.
Be honest. If you're angry, if you feel cheated, say so. If you feel
blessed, say that, too. Take your listeners on a journey:
acknowledge their sorrow, remind them to cherish gladder times, give
them strength to carry on. Remember the things that brought you joy,
the iconic, defining moments, what you'll miss most about your
relationship with your lost beloved. Those who live in
our hearts and
memories can endure forever in our words.
You can add quotes from literature and
history if you like; there are voices throughout the ages that have
described our feelings perfectly, distilling them down into
something lyrical and fine.
They can add
great elegance and depth to a memorial.
What is to cease breathing,
but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and
expand and seek God unencumbered?
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Now: many people face a problem that's
difficult to discuss but very real and quite common. How do
you eulogize someone with whom you had a painful, discordant
relationship? What if you're in a position where you're
obligated to speak about them even though
you feel like
you don't have anything good to say?
There's no way to help you work through a
lifetime of baggage with someone in the time it takes to write their
eulogy - but that simple act might be a great way to begin. At the
very least there are some
things you can
try to help you get it over-with.
First, though this experience may be
incredibly painful and difficult for you, remember that the eulogy
isn't about you; it's about the dead and it's for the living, for
everyone who feels the pain of this passing. You may not be able to
bring yourself to forgive, but healing and
great dignity can
be found in repaying harm with generosity.
Try to look past the tough stuff to their
good qualities. It might be something small; maybe they had a great
singing voice, or made delicious spaghetti, or kept their garage
really well-organized. Can
you expound on those aspects of them?
If not, try outright spin. Think of it as a
way to be kind to your listeners, to help them have an easier time
with this than you are. Instead of 'untruthful', maybe this person
was 'full of imagination' or a 'great storyteller.' Not stingy but
'frugal'; 'stoic' instead of 'emotionally unavailable'; not
stubborn: 'iron-willed'. There are often moments of black humor in
the midst of grief;
this exercise may
be the source of some of them.
But perhaps that's not the way you want to
go. Maybe you need to be honest - and plain: "Most of you know that
Dad and I didn't spend much time together over the last few years.
It's because we didn't see eye to eye on much, and after a while we
figured out we loved each other better from a distance." It's very
likely that there are others who will relate. You don't need to be
brutal; you'll feel better about it later if you're not - and the
truth is often
painful enough even when it's wielded gently.
If you have to say things that are difficult
for others to hear, try to balance them out with whatever positivity
you can. Maybe your hurtful relationship with your mother is what
makes your connection with your sister so deep. Maybe the hardships
you've gone through are what make you so deep; maybe the
pain you've suffered is what's made you strong, taught you
compassion. Shed light on those truths, too. If it
weren't for suffering,
the human spirit would never know triumph.
Finish on a hopeful note if you can. Grief is
dark and heavy, but there's beauty in it, too. Life is precious
because it's short. Death comes for all of us; it's how we spend the
time we have that's important, what we leave behind in the hearts
and lives of others.
grief is a divine and terrible radiance which transfigures the
~ Victor Hugo, Les
Eulogy help at a
1. Who were they?
2. What was most
important about them?
3. What will you miss most?
4. How did
they change you?
5. What was their effect on the lives they
6. What do you want the world to remember about
7. What did they leave behind?
What can we learn from their life?