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How to Give the Perfect Eulogy

7 tips to share your memories and thoughts at a funeral


Earlier this month, President Barack Obama gave an eloquent funeral oration for Beau Biden, the former Delaware Attorney General, Iraq War veteran and son of Vice President Joe Biden.

“Here was a scion of an incredible family who brushed away the possibility of privilege for the harder, better reward of earning his own way,” Obama said of the man who died of brain cancer at 46. “Beau Biden brought to his work a mighty heart. He brought to his family a mighty heart. What a good man. What an original.”

Many of us still remember how President Ronald Reagan consoled a nation when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. “And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff,” Reagan said in his nationally televised speech. “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”

Don’t fear that if you don’t nail this speech, you have failed to honor the memory of your recently deceased relative.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a president can give a moving eulogy. Presidents have speechwriters; Peggy Noonan, for example, is credited for writing the Challenger speech. And public speaking is part of the job description for a politician.

But what do the rest of us do when we’re asked to speak at the funeral of a loved one?

Eulogies combine two of the things that many people would rather avoid: death and public speaking, according to Justin Michael, founder of Eulogy Consultants, a eulogy ghostwriting business based in Austin, Texas.

No wonder many people find the prospect daunting.

But here are seven pieces of advice that can make the task easier:

1. First, relax.

Don’t fear that if you don’t nail this speech, you have failed to honor the memory of your recently-deceased relative.

“That’s just not true,” Michael said. “You have to take the pressure off and realize it’s just not that important.”

According to Michael, your eulogy isn’t your last chance to say goodbye. “This is just a simple preamble to how I’m going to remember this person,” he said.

In his book A Labor of Love: How to Write a Eulogy, author Garry Schaeffer says you should remind yourself that you won’t be facing a tough audience. Your relative just died. They’ll be sympathetic.

“A eulogy does not have to be perfect,” according to Schaeffer. “Realize whatever you write will be appreciated.”

2. On the other hand, don’t just try to wing it.

“Don’t speak from the heart,” Michael urged. At a funeral, “the heart is full of anguish. That is not eloquent. That is not pretty.”

In other words, you want to have your eulogy speech written out and well-rehearsed before the funeral. And you’ll want to take a copy of the speech with you. Don’t try to deliver it from memory.

“When death has just happened, people’s minds go blank,” said Theresa Scott, who has written hundreds of eulogies for Eulogy Consultants. “During a time of such grief, so many things can go wrong.”

3. A eulogy is not an obituary.

The role of the eulogist isn’t to present a biographical summary of a person’s life, but to share some memories of the deceased.

“You want it to be very personal,” Michael said.

Follow the old writer’s adage of show, not tell, with anecdotes that illustrate what the deceased was like and your relationship to him or her.

“Tell stories. You’re trying to paint a picture here,” Scott said. The idea is to share your memories as an example to people in the congregation so they’ll be comfortable sharing their own stories after the service.

4. Do a little homework before writing.

Feel free to interview friends or relatives to collect stories. Schaeffer suggests brainstorming with questions like, “What made your loved one truly happy?” Or “what will you remember most about this person?”

5. Humor is fine.

“If there’s a story that lovingly pokes fun at your deceased father, then please tell it,” Scott said.

The eulogy should be written in a conversational style. Don’t try to use big words. Keep the vocabulary simple. It should sound like what you would say to a good friend at a coffeeshop.

“Just really, really polished,” Scott said.

6. Keep it short.

Even if you will be the only speaker, don’t plan on speaking more than 10 minutes, said Scott, who was on competitive speech teams in high school and college. People have a limited attention span. They’ll likely stop listening after about 10 minutes, Scott said.

Something that lasts for only four or five minutes is perfectly fine, she noted. Speaking briefly doesn’t mean you loved the deceased any less.

Ronald Reagan’s tribute to the Challenger crew only lasted about four minutes.

7. Be prepared when it’s your time to speak.

Bring a glass or a bottle of water and, if you choke up, use the time while taking a drink to gather yourself. Print out your speech in extra-large type size so you won’t lose your place if you have to pause. Try to articulate and speak slowly. People tend to speak quickly when they’re nervous, Scott said.

If you have trouble coming up with a beginning, try something simple and to the point, suggested Scott. Introduce yourself, because not everyone may know you’re Bob’s daughter from his second marriage. Then thank everyone for coming.

Scott said a conclusion can be equally simple. She suggests speaking directly to the deceased. Thank dad for all the things he’s done for you. That can be a powerful way to end.

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