So, you’ve been asked to speak at the funeral service of a loved one. This is a huge honor and it shows the confidence your family or the family of the deceased has in you to share stories. But, this is not like writing a term paper or giving a speech in communications class. Even a seasoned public speaker can find this difficult because not only will you be in front of people, you’ll be experiencing your own emotions of grief and sadness.
One time, a very gregarious TV personality was asked to eulogize his cousin. As the clergy person, I am always glad when friends or family want to eulogize their loved one! I think it adds so much love to a service, but I always warn people to WRITE it down and to practice. He assured me he could wing it and would be just fine. I announced his name and he came up to the podium and broke down, making his “winging it” very difficult. He did tell a great story and we all laughed and cried. It turned out very nice, but I know he felt awkward for several moments and wished he’d have been able to tell other stories that were important to him. No matter who you are, come prepared. Emotions will be high, so, have a plan!
And, part of that plan can be to have a backup plan. There have been many times where someone really wants to speak but just can’t at the time. But, they have written it out and I read it for them. Think about discussing this option with your clergy/funeral officiant. That way if it comes your time to speak and you simply cannot speak, your words and story will still heard.
Here are some other tips for writing a eulogy that people will remember.
1. Keep it less than 10 minutes (5-7 is even better).
Trust me on this one. No matter how good your stories are, if you talk too long, everyone will stop listening. It may seem to reason that the longer you talk the more you loved the person or that the person deserves to be eulogized for 40 minutes. No doubt your loved one deserves an amazing, memorable eulogy, but talking longer than 10 minutes will not make your words more effective. Talking too long leaves people fidgety and there is less time for others to speak.
2. This is not about you. This is not about you.
Don’t tell a story that isn’t about the deceased. It’s weird, don’t do it. And, don’t just focus on you. Inevitably, the stories you share will probably be about your experience of your loved one, but try to make the eulogy a shared experience that everyone can say, “oh, yes, I remember when she did….” Or “Exactly! She was so good with my kids too!”
Also, this is not a time to tell everyone for ten minutes how sad you are. Sure, that is an important part of the eulogy, but everyone is sad and we know you are too. Feel free to mention how much you loved your friend, mother, grandfather and how much you will miss them, but don’t forget to tell stories, tell stories, tell stories.
3. Laughing and Crying are both good!
Don’t feel like you can’t tell a funny story. People need to laugh and laughing at a funeral can be very healing. In fact, sometimes stories that have humor add a very genuine moment to the eulogy and people truly feel like they are finding healing, rather than a stuffy sermon-like-eulogy that is full of platitudes and doesn’t help anyone find comfort.
Likewise, it’s okay to cry. It’s a sad moment. Don’t feel badly about crying or making other people cry. You do not need to apologize. Just catch your breath and keep going.
4. Don’t use curse words
This may sound silly, but one time I counted 50 curse words in one person’s eulogy. It was really awkward. 50 is way overboard but even more than three times is probably too much. Sometimes there truly is a story or a phrase that needs a curse word, but don’t abuse it. No one wants to go to a funeral service and walk away offended or scandalized.
5. What do you actually say?
This is a question I get a lot. And, I tell people, to tell stories, to give thanks, and to be real. The best eulogies offer words that name why the person was beloved. Tell about that one vacation that went horribly wrong but then became a family favorite story. Tell about that time that he won a cannonball contest. Or that other time that she laughed so hard milk came out of her nose. Or maybe that one Christmas when your sister gave your children a puppy. Look through pictures, through Facebook, through anything you have that might remind you of lifelong stories of your loved one.
I also suggest that people don’t give obituary type of information. For example, don’t give a bullet list of dates: He was born on July 1 at Women’s and Children’s Hospital and graduated from Middleton High School in 1987. These are things for an obituary and really are not meant for a eulogy, unless it helps you tell a good story.
6. Be yourself.
You loved this person and they loved you. That’s all you need to get started, love. If you want to write a letter instead of a eulogy, do it. If you want to make a list of the top ten moments, do it. If you want to sing a song, do it. Be yourself, take a deep breath, and prepare and you will honor your loved one beautifully.