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You’ve been asked to give a eulogy for a friend, a family member – perhaps even your mother or father. What do you say, and how do you say it?
Should you be funny or serious? Is it okay to cry? How long should your speech be? And when can you give it?
Chances are, unless you speak in public for a living, this eulogy will be a daunting task. You are summing up someone’s life in a few words (here’s a hint: don’t talk for too long), and there is so much to say.
To help, we’ve put together answers to some frequently asked questions about eulogies:
What should I say? Whatever you say should be tailored to who the decedent was and what that person was like. It wouldn’t be appropriate to give a eulogy for a comedian, for example, without telling some funny stories. If the decedent was a child, being funny could be seen as insensitive. Try to sum up what made the person special or unique. Was the decedent a woodworker? Talk about the beautiful piece of furniture they made you and the care that went into making it. Were they passionate about the outdoors? Talk a little about their favorite place and why it meant so much to them. If they loved their family more than anything else, let mourners know and talk about the things the decedent did to show that love. Whatever you do, do not make the eulogy about you. Remember that you’re telling a portion of another’s life story, not your own.
How long should I speak? Not long. The rule of thumb for a eulogy is around five minutes but no more than 10 minutes. If you are sharing the podium with other speakers, try to trim what you say back to three minutes. You may not think that is possible but remember this: The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. He delivered it in three minutes.
When will I be able to speak? This may depend on the venue and its rules. Some churches, for example, frown on eulogies delivered during a Funeral Mass. If that happens, you may want to speak during a visitation before the actual funeral or at a gathering held after services. If you are allowed to speak at a church, discuss the schedule with the pastor beforehand to determine if there is any protocol of which you need to be aware.
Is it okay to cry? A momentary catch in the throat. A tear escaping from the corner of your eye. Both are okay. It’s also fine to take a moment to compose yourself when you feel a surge of emotion. But if you feel you are going to completely break down and that you’ll never make it through a speech, allow someone else to speak. Write down your words and ask a friend or a family member to deliver the speech for you. It’s okay if you are too grief-stricken to speak. Everyone handles grief differently.
The following are some examples of excellent eulogies that may inspire you when the time comes:
When President Bill Clinton eulogized former President Richard Nixon following his death in 1994, he didn’t ignore Nixon’s failures as a leader, but he sought to put them in context:
Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.
When civil rights icon Rosa Parks died, Oprah Winfrey spoke of that pivotal moment in history when Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Summarizing Rosa Parks’ life and its meaning was a daunting task. Winfrey was up to the challenge:
And in that moment when you resolved to stay in that seat, you reclaimed your humanity and you gave us all back a piece of our own. I thank you for that. I thank you for acting without concern. I often thought about what that took, knowing the climate of the times and what could have happened to you, what it took to stay seated. You acted without concern for yourself and made life better for us all. We shall not be moved.
When Graham Chapman, a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, died, John Cleese talked about his friend in ribald terms and attempted to capture a life of laughter in a few words. His opening was both memorable and poignant:
I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, such capability and kindness, of such intelligence should now be so suddenly spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun.
Well, I feel that I should say, “Nonsense. Good riddance to him…”
And the reason I think I should say this is, he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste.
What each of these excerpts show is that the eulogy should meet its subject. Whether funny, serious, mournful or joyful, what you say should help those gathered know the decedent a little better and what made that person memorable and unique.
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