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A eulogy is a speech given at a memorial service in memory of a person who has died. The purpose is to recall the defining qualities and highlights of a life lived in a way that benefits the audience, particularly the family. It should capture the essence of the life lived. Following are steps to guide the composition of an effective eulogy.
TONE: In many cases, deciding on the tone of the eulogy is a good place to start. Strive to be suitable to the personality of the departed, but also mindful of the circumstances that caused the death. Incorporating appropriate humor can add some needed levity while conveying the personality or endearing qualities of the deceased in many situations.
AUDIENCE CONSIDERATIONS: With the purpose and tone in mind, write the eulogy primarily for the deceased's family and loved ones. It is important to stay positive. Try to not give offense or shock the audience, or cause confusion by referring to something that only a few people know about. It is important to be honest, but be gentle if it’s necessary to reference a “struggle” or “constant battle” someone had. Give praise where possible.
BASIC CONTENTS: A eulogy should not give all of the basic information about a loved one the way an obituary does. It should include the most important facts: birth date, age at death, date of death and family members of the deceased. It should also share what the loved one’s family life was like, their career/lifetime achievements, and the hobbies and interests they enjoyed most.
REMEMBERING THE LIFE LIVED: Because a eulogy involves sharing meaningful memories about a person that has died, speak with everyone you can to get their memories, thoughts and impressions about the loved one. Dig for the intimate details that will keep the person alive in memory: quirks, hobbies, favorite passions, oft-heard quotes, travels, food or unusual pursuits. Also write down as many memories as possible of your own. Look among these lists for common themes, recurring qualities and favorite memories. Then instead of just listing off these qualities, recount short stories that best illustrate the most important themes or qualities of the life lived. These particular short stories will be the most meaningful pieces of the eulogy.
ORGANIZATION: A eulogy should have an introduction, a specific purpose statement, some organized points, and a conclusion. The specific purpose statement conveys the over-arching purpose of the eulogy, and it should be used to guide the selection of what information and stories will be shared and how they will be shared. For example:
- Intro story (1-2 minutes): When he was 5, Jim Dobson..
- Specific purpose statement: Today let’s remember and celebrate John’s life by highlighting some of the facts and memories that best represent him.
- Obituary stats info (birth, schooling, military, marriage/partner, children, grandchildren. date and age of death)
- 2-3 most important/memorable things about the loved one
- how the loved one will be remembered by the family members, and perhaps closes friends
- Conclusion: short story or quote that captures the essence of the loved one in a positive way, perhaps one of the greatest things they accomplished in their life or family or community – which may be small and precious or grandiose.
Emotions will often ebb and flow during the delivery of the eulogy. Be sure to write down dates and the names of the family members especially close to the deceased so they are not accidently forgotten.
GET FEEDBACK: Feedback is important, as others will notice if anything important is missing, confusing or lacking enough context. Have family members or close friends who know the loved one read the eulogy to make sure it does a good job in capturing the essence of the life lived.
Be careful to guard against hurt feelings when the feedback comes, as “helpful criticisms” might feel hard to take at such an emotional time.
DELIVERY: The average eulogy is about 4-7 minutes long – just enough time to recount the dates and highlights of a life with a few meaningful short stories mixed in. While it might easily be longer, remember that less is often more.
It is easy to feel self-conscious when standing up to share before a group of people. Remember that this is about the loved one. The people listening have come to the funeral to support each other and you as they share in this ‘goodbye tribute’ to someone they cared about. Speak from the heart. The outline and notes will keep the message easy to understand.
Before giving the eulogy, simply state your name and describe your relationship to the deceased in a few words for anyone that would not know. E.g. “Hello. My name is Tom. Jim was my best friend since college.” Then give the eulogy in an unhurried manner.
CAUTION: For the rare experienced speaker, it’s helpful to remember that many listeners won’t easily understand an intellectual vocabulary. Use words that are easy to understand so everyone can participate in remembering and celebrating the life that was lived.