Honoring a Life With a Good Word - Giving A Eulogy
A eulogy expresses sorrow for loss, yet celebrates the person's life.
Eulogy means "a good word." Giving a eulogy is a way to honor a person's life. It also is a way to provide comfort to those who are hurting. What better use could there be for a speaker's skills than to offer tribute to a loved one? Yet agreeing that the task is worthy does not make it less difficult. Some people are uncomfortable around tears and grieving, and afraid they might inadvertently say the wrong thing and cause additional pain. Others who might wish to offer a eulogy may be struggling with feelings of grief themselves.
A eulogy is a written or spoken tribute, generally to someone who has recently died. For our purposes, we will consider the eulogy as separate from the religious message that often accompanies funeral services, although priests and ministers will often personalize the service with remembrances of the deceased, thereby offering their own eulogy along with their message. A eulogy expresses sorrow for loss, yet celebrates and finds meaning in the person's life.
There are two times when you might be asked to give a eulogy. One is at the memorial service itself. Often the minister or priest presiding over the service will offer an opportunity to audience members to share remembrances. Here is where your extemporaneous speaking practice pays off. Even if you have given some thought to what you might say, the spontaneity of the situation remains. The other potentiality is a pre-service invitation, where a family member asks you in advance to share your remembrances. In either situation, the following is important to note: While you may summarize the highlights of the person's life and accomplishments, the best eulogies are subjective, focusing on the impact that the deceased had on you and others. The ultimate goal is to commemorate the individual's life, and share memories and comfort with others who will miss him or her.
Obviously, if you are not offered the opportunity to speak until the service, you'll have only moments to prepare. Yet in considering what to say, ask yourself these two quick questions: "What story, conversation or event comes to mind when I remember this individual?" and "Is the remembrance something that would bring comfort to others in the audience?" A story is likely to be welcome if it positively expresses the personality or character of the person being remembered. If the answer to the second question is yes, feel free to share your memory.
"Consider your audience" is the most crucial task when you have been asked to speak ahead of time. Discuss preference in tone and content with the person who solicits your help. As with other speeches, your eulogy will benefit from an outline. As you decide what to include, you can use information from the obituary, which is often written like a brief life history. But keep in mind that it's not a person's resume that made him or her important to us. Reflect on the essence of the person. Use these questions to trigger your memory:
Are there letters from the deceased you could look at? Did he keep a journal, or did she write notes inside her Bible? Sometimes these intimate, informal writings reveal the heart of a person.
Part of your mission is to provide comfort to members of the audience. Did this person ever say how proud she was of her children? Did she praise her spouse's talents? Share these words - they will be precious gems to her family.
Realize that if you are preparing the main eulogy for the memorial service, as opposed to one of several tributes, you can ask these questions of others who were close to the individual. Although this idea might strike you as awkward and insensitive, you should know that most people are glad to talk about their departed loved ones.
In A Labor of Love: How to Write a Eulogy, Garry Schaeffer suggests several formats you can choose for a eulogy. One style is a list. Begin by listing traits you liked about the person, then go back and flesh out each point with a story or example. Another option is the letter eulogy. Here you write as though you were writing to the loved one, covering points you have decided are important to share. When my own grandmother died, I was unable to make the cross-country trip to attend the funeral, but I wanted the world to know how special she was to me. I wrote her "one last letter," which the minister read at her memorial service. It mentioned specific "firsts" she had provided me, treasured memories and the impact she had made on my life.
Empathy for your audience should be your utmost concern. There is no need to be overly professional or aloof in this situation. If you are asked to eulogize the deceased, you have a personal relationship or connection with her and her friends and family. Speak as if you are talking to a friend.
Although we feel sorrow when we lose someone, don't assume you must remain somber at all times. Humor can be welcome and even helpful at a memorial service. It is appropriate to recall fun and even funny times with the person you are paying tribute to. Also, keep in mind the honoree's personality. Would this person have hated a sad service? If so, you might mention that, and in his honor keep the tone light. At my grandmother's funeral, I honored her love of laughter and good food by stating, "I thank you for teaching me that great truth - one that I hold dear to this day - dessert is important!"
What if you yourself are experiencing deep personal loss. Can you still go forward to present a eulogy? Although this is a personal decision, here are a few things to keep in mind:
This is not a business presentation, and no one expects stoicism. If you find yourself momentarily overcome with emotion, it is perfectly acceptable to pause. Your audience is also grieving and there is comfort in the fellowship of others who cared for your loved one.
Your skills and preparation will aid you in delivering the words you have chosen, even when your emotions are running high. Like an athlete whose training gets him through the stress and rigor of the big race, your Toastmasters experiences will serve you well, even in this difficult situation.
The process of preparing and delivering the eulogy will help you in your grieving process. According to grief educator Victoria Alexander, all grieving persons need to:
Isn't it a shame that we traditionally present these beautiful tributes to people only after they've died? Schaeffer suggests the idea of a living eulogy. He recommends contacting people who have valued the person you wish to honor, asking for letters, and then compiling them into an album. Or ask several people to write eulogies, and then plan a dinner for the honoree, allowing all the guests to read or deliver their special message. This highly personal tribute may be appropriate for a retirement banquet or at a birthday party. In any case, a eulogy may be one of the most challenging and rewarding speeches you'll ever give.
Vicki Edwards is a Toastmaster in California.