It’s said that funerals are for the living, not the dead. They provide closure, a ceremony that allows for communal expressions of grief, and a reminder of the value of the life lived and the loved ones left behind.
That last part is the work of a eulogy. If you are bestowed the honor of delivering a eulogy, you have a solemn responsibility. Your role at the funeral is to memorialize the deceased for the living, to leave them with a last gift from their loved one, a vessel for their emotion that day and beyond.
Writing and delivering a eulogy is a difficult task for those not accomplished at public speaking. Here are six tips to help you on the journey.
1. Write Down Your Thoughts
It is not a good idea to read or memorize your eulogy because it will not come off as heartfelt. However, unless you’re truly adept at speechmaking, it is a good idea to assemble and organize your thoughts in advance and work out how you are going to deliver them. Writing your eulogy will provide the opportunity for someone else to review it and provide constructive feedback.
2. Talk to People Who Knew Them
Other people will have stories to tell that encompass the subject’s life. These stories may be instructive, sad or funny; what is most important is that they are true to the person being eulogized.
3. Research or Consider the Facts of Their Life
Though a eulogy can’t simply be a list of biographical facts, it is helpful to include some information about the person being eulogized. You need to know where and when they were born, the names of their spouse and children, something about their career and interests, and so on.
4. Know What to Avoid
Avoid some common mistakes: Don’t consume sedatives or alcohol before the eulogy to calm down. That could cause a very embarrassing situation. Avoid off-color language even if that is true to the deceased. Not everyone will appreciate it. Although honesty is a good policy, avoid complaining about the deceased. And dress appropriately for the occasion. Bright colors or unkempt clothing don’t honor the person you are eulogizing.
5. Be Aware of the Length of Your Speech
It is easy for inexperienced speakers to lose track of time and bore their audience with redundant information. This is a common and critical error that many novice public speakers make. Unless your eulogy is an amazing journey through the deceased’s life, it is going to lose its effectiveness after 10 or 15 minutes. Limit yourself to the best stories that really capture the essence of the subject. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “Be brief, be sincere and be seated.”
6. Express Emotion
A funeral is an emotional time and the anecdotes you relate will trigger more of those feelings. It’s perfectly acceptable to show your emotions, whether tears of sadness or joy. A good eulogy usually inspires a mix of feelings related to appreciation for the life lived and bereavement over the life lost. There is one important caveat here: If you believe you won’t be able to control your emotions, it’s best not to attempt to deliver the eulogy. Uncontrollable sobbing can create an uncomfortable situation for those paying their respects.
David Looney, Chaplain and Funeral Officiant at Stuhr Funeral Home in Charleston, South Carolina, offers up this piece of advice, too. He recommends asking loved ones to describe the person being eulogized in one word. “You would be amazed at what you glean about someone just from that one word description,” he says.
Looney also recommends family questionnaires if you’re really struggling. “I find that a brief questionnaire of about six to seven questions asking family members and loved ones for details you may not know can go a long way in helping you capture the words you need to say.”