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32. Eulogies

...till death do us part.

— the Book of Common Prayer

Depending on the circumstances of a death and the religion, memorial services are becoming more popular than funerals. Increasingly, they are thought of as a celebration of the person's life instead of a cause for mourning.

If you are orchestrating such an event, it is important to tell the attendees how to participate and exactly what you want them to do. Walk through in your mind exactly what friends need to know, right down to the directions to a church, gravesite, or home. A friend of mine admitted that he once arrived at the wrong funeral because he confused churches and he wasn't given an address!

What are the expectations in a Jewish home when you sit Shiva? Are visitors allowed or expected to take communion at a Catholic Church? What is expected of attendees in a Muslim or Buddhist ceremony? People want to be respectful at a time like this, but you have to tell them how.

In creating your own service, according to one clergywoman I interviewed, there should be three main parts. Firstly, thanks and praise for the life should be given. Secondly, the friends and extended family should share their personal feelings and experiences. Thirdly, attendees want to be reminded that as life goes on, the departed will always be remembered and live on in the hearts of all gathered there.

If you are called upon by the family to give part of the service, make sure that you can do it without completely breaking down. A few tears or becoming slightly choked up does happen when the feelings are sincere, but becoming completely overwhelmed with the sadness of the moment and having to be led away does not serve the occasion. You will be forgiven more readily for not speaking than for being less than dignified when you do. If you suddenly find yourself too overwhelmed to go on, don't.

In the past, the immediate family was sequestered to mourn privately, but as customs become more casual, family members are beginning to take a more active role in the eulogy. A thoughtful clergyman came to the aid of a 13-year-old daughter who had overestimated her command of emotions by simply coming to stand at her side for support. His mere presence gave her the added strength she needed to finish the words that were so important to her to impart. Another clergywoman always asks the family for a signal or code that means "I can't go on, please rescue or finish for me." Giving your clergy person this permission ahead of time can ensure that things will run more smoothly.

Very often, various people will be asked to represent and speak to different time periods (the early years or mid life) or the different aspects (business, sports, community involvement) of a person's life.

Most any clergy person will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is coming up to speed on the details of a life at the very last minute. The media, of course, has a tribute to every famous person over the age of 60 in the planning stages so they will not be caught off guard without the best clips when the time comes.

If you are going to acknowledge family members or other mourners, make sure you know exactly how to pronounce their names. The audience probably knows these people better than you do and will be somewhat unforgiving if you don't get it right. How well you didn't know the person is not a very good approach either.

Sometimes, anyone who wishes to speak is invited to do so. To avoid rambling, have a mental outline of what you want to include. True-life stories that put the deceased in a good light or ones that share the humor of situations you experienced with him or her are your best bet. It probably goes without saying that no one in your audience will appreciate anything that could be construed as critical or mean-spirited. Backstabbing would be redundant since your victim is already dead. If all is fair in love and war, then all must be forgiven in death.


As with any other presentation, you should take as much time as possible ahead of the actual service to prepare. Share some of the funny and endearing moments you or others experienced with the deceased. Pick funny or poignant real-life stories that are not embarrassing to anyone but that typify the person's beloved idiosyncrasies and uniqueness. Experiences that begin with the phrase, "I'll never forget the time that" or "The funniest thing that ever happened to us was" are usually good openers. Sometimes little known facts such as where a nickname came from or a prophetic childhood experience will bond the group and make everyone feel a little closer. Include the things that made you and everyone else love the departed.

Tell of your experiences as a comedian would, very concisely and with a punch line. In other words, know where you are going and stop the minute you get there. Perhaps string three or four one-minute stories together from your happy memories and those of others close to him or her. Begin with the second best and save the very best for last, but get to it quickly so the audience is still interested in your payoff.

Or use the stories to punctuate the history of the person or your period in her life or his. And still have a good close. Appropriate passages from the Old or New Testament Bible, the Koran, poetry, and readings are often included as well. Again, less is more. But it is sometimes helpful to have other's wisdom and words when you are at a loss for your own.

The internet has many sites with appropriate quotes and inspiration. Go to your favorite search engines with key words such as "quotes on death," and "angel-on-my-shoulder." My all-time favorite source for conventional wisdom, Bartlett 's Book of Quotations is both online and in bookstores.

Here are some quotes that I find profound, inspirational, and even humorous, for laughter leavens sorrow. Or be serious and sincere, not somber. Explain why you've chosen a particular quote, perhaps the words or the source make it the perfect epitaph for the person they knew and loved. For example, was she beyond busy and more spiritual than religious? Then, perhaps...

Because I could not stop for death
He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality

— Emily Dickinson

Or was he a beloved but irascible and cantankerous old codger?

I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

— Winston Churchill

Other appropriate quotes might include:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

— Sir James Barrie, Peter Pan

Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

— Dag Hammarskjöld

When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.
Live your life in a manner so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.

— Native American proverb

Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.

— David Searls

The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life.

— Lucan

Death. ..the last sleep? No the final awakening.

— Walter Scott

For death begins with life's first breath And life begins at touch of death

— John Oxenham

Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't.

— Richard Bach

At a recent funeral I attended, there was a particularly comforting quote from Helen Steiner Rice printed on the front of the Memorial Order of Service. If you decide to speak a poem, keep the meaning, but take words out if they tie your tongue. Many poems are written for the eye and not the ear.

Practice for as much time as you have, until you know how you want to deliver it, where to pause and what words need emphasis to give the correct meaning. Slowing down and letting the words and significance sink into an audience always helps.

When I must leave you
For a little while,

Please do not grieve

Or shed wild tears
And hug your sorrow to you
Through the years,

But start out bravely
With a smile.

And for my sake
And in my name,
Live on and do
All things the same.

Feed not your loneliness
On empty days,
But fill each waking hour
In useful ways.

Reach out your hand in comfort
And in cheer,

I, in turn, will comfort you
And hold you near.

And never, never
Be afraid to die,

For I am waiting for you
In the sky.

Perhaps the widow had chosen these words to help her young children and the audience, too, deal with the extra burden of an early death.

On that occasion, I quoted Henry David Thoreau: "We have lived not in proportion to the number of years we have spent, but in proportion as we have enjoyed." Also, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "It is not length of life, but depth of life." And the Roman playwright, Lucius Seneca: "Our care should not be to have lived long as to have lived enough."

Then I related how this man had lived the years he was given to the fullest, what he cared most deeply about, and all the things that he enjoyed. With the quotes as my guide and repeating key words such as enjoy, depth, and living, the eulogy flowed simply and logically.

It is an honor to be asked to speak at such an occasion, so take care to be particularly sensitive to whatever the situation is.

For example, the friends of someone whose life had been particularly hard or challenged by drugs or alcohol might appreciate a minister's recollection of the prolific author and historian Elbert Hubbard's words: "God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars." He followed it by an explanation that it is through our wounds that we learn and heal.

And the more relevant your choice of source or words of wisdom, the better. Perhaps the poignancy of Thoreau would be appropriately paraphrased for an environmentalist or nature lover: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To see if I could not learn what life had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

What scientist, doctor, mathematician, or even rabbi would not appreciate the sentiments of Albert Einstein at their funerals: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is."

And when the time comes to eulogize those who served in the military during wars, General George S. Patton's words add power and poignancy: "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

A eulogy doesn't have to be only poems or quotes. Sometimes, songs can add great depth, either for their lyrics or perhaps the group was a favorite of the deceased.

One line from a song that seems particularly appropriate when there's a casket or the sprinkling of ashes from a boat or the beach.

"Oh, boat's left on the shoreline behind me. Now with You, I'll explore other seas."

And what Irishman or boy named Daniel hasn't heard these Frederic Edward Weatherly lyrics all his life?

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

Or take something you've read in a book that seems profound. Expounding on wisdom from the current addition to the best-selling One-Minute series, The One Minute Apology, seemed appropriate for a wake at which I was asked to speak, with draped coffin and a burial.

I said, "No matter who wins at Monopoly, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box...the money, the property, all the Chances you took, even your game piece. All any of us get to keep is our soul, where we store whom we loved and who loved us."

Your job as a eulogizer is to add appropriate color to the play-by-play. If you have an appropriate and favorite poem, quote, or song that you would like shared at your own memorial, take some of the pressure off others by writing it down and sharing it with the close friends you know will be there.

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