Recently I attended a memorial celebration of the all-too-short life of one of my husband’s colleagues. Several family members and friends made touching tributes to the deceased, and as I sat in the crowded room I listened to these presentations not as Angela the speech coach, but as a mourner in a community of mourners. Still, the speakers who know my profession came up afterwards and asked, “How did I do?” I’m by no means an expert on giving a eulogy (even though I have given a few in my life), but I will share what I learned that day that touched me as both a mourner and a speech coach. Here are my seven elements of a moving eulogy.
1. Use “good words”: The word “eulogy” comes from the classical Greek for “good words,” and that’s a great place to start. Choose uplifting, evocative, descriptive words, even if they are not in your everyday vocabulary. Now is the moment to employ words that bring solace, comfort, and hope to those listening, so let your imagination and your inner preacher flow. Think about the words that give you hope—they are the words to use.
2. Be grateful: You have been asked to speak because you had a special relationship with the person being honored, so consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Not only will you be honoring a person you loved, but you also have a unique opportunity to help everyone in the room feel more connected and at peace. This powerful moment will stay with you for the rest of your life.
3. Prepare well: The hardest part of giving a eulogy is that there is little time to prepare. Even if you only have a day or two to prepare, do more than “think about” what you’re going to say. The most memorable eulogies are well prepared with interesting facts, stories, and recurring themes and patterns. I’ve often heard people say they learned so much about the person from the speeches given at the memorial service. Type your notes double spaced and wide margins or write them on 5 x 8 cards. You may not need to refer to these aids but they will be there if you do.
4. Find the unique signature: Each of us has a personal signature, and like our fingerprint, it is unique to us. I don’t mean how you sign your name but rather the themes, behavior patterns, and activities that we love most in life. If you’re unsure of the person’s signature, talk to family members and friends to learn what gave the person’s life color and meaning. What was this person devoted to—tropical sunsets, their family, a particular sport, a special non-profit organization?
5. Practice your delivery: Practice at least three times before you deliver the eulogy, preferably in front of one or two people. Practice speaking to the closest family members. They will be sitting in the front row and deserve your focus and attention. Of course, include the bigger group, but always come back to those in the front. Stand up tall, stay still, speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and allow time for the audience to respond to your stories and jokes.
6. Manage your emotions: This may be the hardest part for many people, especially if this is your first eulogy. That’s why it’s so important to prepare and practice ahead of time. Yet, even if you do practice, your emotions may rise up unexpectedly. Don’t worry if they do. Your audience is forgiving if you tear up—they will be tearing up with you—but it will be very hard on everyone, particularly the family members, if you break down in sobs. So if you feel yourself becoming overly emotional, pause, take a deep breath, smile at the audience, look at your notes, gather your composure, and move on.
7. Use humor: The most touching and gratifying moments of any eulogy are embedded in humorous stories about the person being celebrated. That’s where “kernels of truth” reside. People relate best to stories, and humor helps lift our spirits in a way nothing else can. Your audience needs you to make them laugh. So even if you’re not a natural at telling a humorous story or funny joke, give it a try. Just remember to keep the story highly relevant to the occasion and to practice your punch line.
For some inspiration, I’d recommend you read a wonderful book, Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, edited by Cyrus M. Copeland. This remarkable collection includes eulogies given for some of the most notable people of our time, from George Harrison to Henry Ford to Lucille Ball. Here you will read many “good words.”
I’d love to hear your experience giving eulogies. Please comment on this blog or email me your thoughts with “eulogies” in the subject line.