When Vice President Joe Biden delivered a eulogy for Frank Lautenberg in June, he didn’t just praise the late senator’s accomplishments or lament his loss. Biden also sprinkled in a series of quips that had the mourners laughing. That lightheartedness no doubt provided some welcome emotional relief, coming as it did near the end of a funeral service that lasted two-and-a-half hours.
Delivering a eulogy—a speech given at a funeral service in praise of the deceased—can feel like a daunting, thankless task. It combines two of the most widely held fears—the fear of death and the fear of public speaking. And we must face these fears while coping with grief over the loss of a loved one.
But an effective eulogy can help both the person delivering it and the people listening to it come to terms with their grief. It can leave people feeling a little better about themselves and a little closer to the memory of the deceased.
Here’s how to write and deliver a great eulogy.
THE FOUR ELEMENTS
There are four components to consider when constructing a eulogy…
Grab listeners with a distinctive, attention-getting opening line. If you open with, “We are all gathered here today to remember…” your audience will tune you out. Choose an opening line that makes people want to know more.
Example: Comedy writer Alan Zweibel began his eulogy of comic actress Gilda Radner with, “About 14 years ago, I was hiding behind a potted plant and this girl asked if I could help her be a parakeet, and I’ve been smitten with Gilda ever since.” Everyone present likely kept listening to hear the rest of this engaging story.
Focus on what made the deceased special. As recently as 1980, about 90% of eulogies were delivered by members of the clergy. Today most are given by friends and family of the deceased. Mourners prefer eulogies delivered by people who knew the deceased well because they want to recall this person as he/she truly was, not listen to generic words of praise and mourning.
Example: If the deceased was a simple man who did his job every day and then came home and watched a ball game on TV, find the specialness in that simplicity and dependability. Tell the story about the time he made it to his office in a huge blizzard only to be shocked that none of his colleagues were there.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what made this person distinctive, ask yourself these questions: What are my keenest memories of the deceased? When was he happiest? What are the highlights of his life story? What was his deepest belief? What was the most important thing I learned from him?
Tell a story that shows how you, personally, benefited from some positive aspect of the deceased’s character. Making the eulogy personal in this way increases the odds that the audience will feel a connection with the speaker and decreases the odds that the speaker will share the same story as another friend or family member who is delivering a eulogy.
Example: In her eulogy of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, fellow cartoonist Cathy Guisewite told a story about how Schulz would call her to tell her how much trouble he was having coming up with an idea for his comic strip that day. Schulz knew that Guisewite often struggled to come up with ideas, she explained, and wanted to let her know she wasn’t alone.
End with a compelling closing line. The final line of a eulogy should be touching and memorable. It could be a heartfelt good-bye to the deceased or a funny story meant to leave the audience smiling. If the deceased said something witty or powerful about his life or upcoming death near the end, quoting that might make a good closing. If he had a distinctive way of saying good-bye or leaving a gathering—a way that the audience will recognize—you might close with that.
If you’re struggling to come up with an effective closing line, the following classic lines might be useful as inspiration…
“I loved him living, and I love him still.”—orator Robert Ingersoll eulogizing writer Walt Whitman.
“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy eternity.”—actor James Woods eulogizing actress Bette Davis, playing off her famous line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” in the film All About Eve.
“I’m going to miss you, Gianni. We’re all going to miss you. But I’ve got a pocketful of memories in my Versace jeans, and they’re not going anywhere.”—singer Madonna eulogizing designer Gianni Versace.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Deciding what to say in a eulogy is only half the challenge. You also must figure out how to say it well. Five tips…
Write first, edit later. Once you have an idea of what you want to say, sit down at your computer or with a pad of paper and just let the words flow out. Don’t worry about making it perfect at this point. You can rewrite awkward sentences later. Worrying about such details now will only inhibit your creativity.
Once you’ve written a first draft, set it aside and don’t look at it until the following day. The delay makes it easier for your mind to see it fresh so that you can identify potential improvements.
Take out anything that isn’t honest. It’s natural to want to praise the deceased in a eulogy, but don’t stretch the truth to do so. Excessive praise will only make your audience silently question your words and reflect on the deceased’s faults. Instead, be positive but truthful. It’s even OK to mention a character flaw or two if you can discuss these in a loving way and the flaws were obvious to everyone anyway. Lovingly citing flaws can help defuse some of the negative thoughts other mourners might be harboring toward the deceased over these flaws.
Examples: Playwright Neil Simon’s eulogy of choreographer Bob Fosse conceded that he was a womanizer who cheated at croquet, but the eulogy did so with great humor and friendship. Bob Hope’s eulogy of fellow comedian Jack Benny noted, “He was stingy to the end. He gave us only 80 years, and it wasn’t enough.” The first sentence acknowledged Benny’s famed miserliness, and the second made it clear that this was said with love.
Keep it short by taking out anything that isn’t necessary. The fewer words you use, the greater the impact your words will have. The typical eulogy is five to 15 minutes long—that’s roughly two-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half typed, double-spaced pages.
Vary sentence lengths. Follow a long sentence with a short sentence or two. This will make the eulogy more pleasing to the ear and better hold the audience’s attention.
Practice out loud. The way we write can differ from the way we speak. If something doesn’t sound as natural to you coming out of your mouth as it did on the page, rewrite that section.
Example: You might find yourself replacing big words with smaller ones and shortening long, complicated sentences.
Once you have a final version, practice it out loud at least five times.
HOW TO DELIVER A EULOGY
If you’re a confident public speaker, simply jot the key points of your eulogy on a note card so that you don’t accidentally skip something. But if public speaking makes you nervous—or you fear your emotions might overwhelm you during the funeral service—type the eulogy up and bring it with you to the lectern so that you can read from it if necessary. Use line-and-a-half spacing and a typeface large enough that you can easily read it from a distance of a few feet.
Unfortunately, reading limits our ability to make eye contact, which makes it more difficult to form an emotional connection with an audience. Try to look up from the page and meet the eyes of audience members when you can, such as when you get to parts of the eulogy that you’re confident you know well.
Don’t worry if you’re not a polished orator. Funeral attendees are very forgiving audiences.