Writing a Eulogy

Death is a part of life, and so are the funerals and memorial services held to mark an individual’s passing. But when we’re called upon to speak at these occasions, many of us are at a loss for words. Here are some basic guidelines for writing a eulogy.

When you leave a memorial or funeral having imagined the fullness of the person being memorialized, you know the speakers got it right. The first rule for eulogists is that this is not about them. It is about paying close attention to the way a person lived and drawing out the most meaningful, memorable bits.

Summing up a life in writing isn’t easy, but it’s an important exercise that serves a dual purpose. It obliges the writer to call up memories — which is a way to honor the person and process one’s loss — and it creates an atmosphere of deep community with other grievers. Do your best to be honest in your eulogy, instead of presenting some idealized portrait that others won’t recognize. Steve Schafer, a pastor who helps people write eulogies, offers the following guidelines.

• Aim for 1,000 words, or about six to seven minutes’ speaking time.

• Always write down what you’re going to say, even if you plan to abandon your notes. It’s a good way to gather your thoughts and make sure you’re not missing any important details.

• Be personal and conversational. This isn’t a formal speech; it’s an appreciation.

• If you aren’t introduced by the celebrant or the priest, do so yourself and say what your relationship to the person was.

• Start with a story about the person. People come alive through specific anecdotes.

• Be humorous. The best eulogies are respectful and solemn, but they also give mourners some comic relief. A bit of roasting is fine if it suits who the person was and the family has a sense of humor.

• Close your eulogy by directly addressing the person who died, something like “Joe, thank you for teaching me how to be a good father.”

FIRST THING TO KNOW is this: Giving a eulogy is good for you. Period.

It may hurt to write it. And reading it? For some, that’s the worst part. The world might spin a little, and everything familiar to you might fade for a few minutes. But remember, remind yourself as you stand there, you are the lucky one.

And that’s not because you aren’t dead. You were selected. You get to stand, face the group, the family, the world, and add it up. You’re being asked to do something at the very moment when nothing can be done. You get the last word in the attempt to define the outlines of a life. That is a gift.

If the idea bores you in some way, don’t do it. If on some level you are not interested in the problem of the assignment, this framing of a life, then simply say no. Suggest someone else. Say you’re too overcome with grief. Get out of it. The job matters.

THE WRITING and reading of a eulogy is, above all, the simple and elegant search for small truths. They don’t have to be truths that everyone agrees on, just ones they will recognize. This can be surprisingly hard, to take notice of the smallest, most unpolished details of a life and set them up for us to stare at in the wonder of recognition.

He protected his family above all else.

She could sometimes be a bully.

He thought out every answer he ever gave before he spoke. And he put his finger on his cheek when he did it.

She never wanted to talk about herself.

That man loved a cigar.

THEY MAY TELL YOU that you have three minutes. They may tell you that you have five. They may tell you to take all the time you want. It doesn’t matter: Time is always an insult at a funeral. Work within the finite space you’re given. Remember that the eulogy is just one part of the formation.

STANDING THERE on the dais, consider the world as a series of concentric rings of loyalty. The people in the nearest ring, those in the front row, are owed the most. You should speak first to them. And then, in the next measure, to the room itself, which is the next ring, and only then to the physical world outside, the neighborhood, the town, the place, and then, just maybe, to the machinations of life-muffling institutions.

YOU MUST WRITE IT DOWN. This is not a wedding toast. In grief, people ought not be forced to wander through memories that may not be acute, well framed, and, above all, purposeful.

YOU MAY CRY. Accept it. But you should not let yourself be hobbled. A eulogy is not a chance to show off what you feel. Need I say this? It is not about you.

That’s why you write it down. That’s why you read it aloud until you feel in yourself every response you might have to every detail. You want to get through the moments that will touch you.

THERE ARE SIMPLER RULES: Don’t read poetry unless you knew it going in. Don’t do imitations. Don’t sing, unless they ask you to. Even then, consider not singing.

YOU MUST MAKE them laugh. Laughs are a pivot point in a funeral. They are your responsibility. The best laughs come by forcing people not to idealize the dead. In order to do this, you have to be willing to tell a story, at the closing of which you draw conclusions that no one expects.

SPEAK SLOWLY and you will get through it and will be proud that you stood up and told the world about your mum, dad, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, friend or neighbour.