You’ve been tasked with eulogizing your loved one, and you have minimal time to prepare. In my work as a funeral celebrant, I’ve personally eulogized hundreds of dear people and have listened to many more eulogies.
Here are my tips:
- Keep the eulogy laser-focused on The Person you’re remembering. I suppose this is obvious, but I have heard eulogists stray far from The Person in an attempt to get an inspirational message across. Concentrate on the specificity of your loved one’s signature life. What traits, what actions, what lifestyle, made your dear one absolutely one-of-a-kind?
- Start from the beginning, summarizing where your loved one was born and the family into which your loved one was born. Ground the story in time and place with specifics. Perhaps give some context: “He was born the year after World War II ended…”
- Pick two or three short stories that illustrate who your loved one was as a person—and for what he or she stood. If your loved one was all about family and her children, choose a story that illustrates this. If he was all about, say, building or fixing things, choose a story to illustrate that.
- Utilize “The Rule of Thirds.” No doubt your loved one was a person of abundant gifts – acknowledge he or she had many—but choose to concentrate on just three gifts. What were your loved one’s three gifts to the world? Or to you specifically? Don’t go through an extensive list. Choose just three, and back up each one with a story. She was compassionate. HOW was she compassionate? He was a family man. What story best illustrates his love of family? She was an avid outdoors person, yes, but more importantly how did she impart that love of nature to you—and to others? “He was a ‘man’s man’ who liked to bake cookies?” Great, what KIND of cookies did he bake?
- Don’t shy away from praise. Through specific colorful stories, seek to “show” your loved one’s personhood and soul. In sharing these stories, you are welcoming others to see how your loved one was as you describe him or her. Laughs, giggles, and tears will be the response to your call. What was she most passionate about in life? A eulogy seeks to shine a light on that. What was the significance of his life? “If you had to sum up who my brother was to the world, to others, he was His tenderness showed through in the way he raised his puppies in his dog-breeding business…”
- Be authentic. Don’t shy from the challenges or struggles that your loved one had. Yes, “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson wrote. Be plainspoken about the difficulties. But tell it all with love!
- Go ahead and be emotional. It is perfectly OK for lots of emotion to come through. Emotion is absolutely what is expected. Don’t worry about expressing everything that you feel with tears, with pauses, with tissues. Have your eulogy printed out just in case someone else absolutely has to step in. But stay standing if you surrender the written eulogy for someone else to read. Let it be yours. Claim it.
- Remember, others will “fill in” detail after the main eulogy. In most cases, about a half a dozen stories will be shared in open mic that will “round out” your loved one’s story. In addition, at receptions and wakes—and at the bar for years to come—more stories of your loved one will be shared.
- Fifteen minutes is long enough. Twenty minutes might be too long. Ten minutes is probably adequate. Edit your eulogy down to the “best of.” Keep your eulogy as tight as you possibly can. Remember to make room for others’ open sharing.
Wind it down. I always conclude my eulogies with a statement about the place and time when our loved one’s life ended—and maybe some details, if true, that he passed surrounded by family, holding someone’s hand, listening to her favorite Van Morrison song. Was there some peace when he or she shoved off?
You can list by whom he or she is preceded in death. But definitely list who he leaves behind—who she’s survived by—naming the significant members of his or her tribe. You can make this more lyrical than just a list by using wording such as “Uncle Joe will be held tight in the hearts of his three siblings: Suzy (with Jim), Greg (with Julie), and Fred (with Karin). His light and love will remain in his three children: Eunie, Billie, and Robbie (with Kylie). And his legacy will live on in his grandchildren: Hallie, Kristie, and Robbie Jr.”
And then my closing line is some version of the following: “We will hold Uncle Joe forever in our hearts. Of course we will… He’s a man, a huge presence in my life, who will be so very missed.”
You are remembering your loved one to your tribe through storytelling like only a spouse or sibling or daughter or nephew or cousin can! Being called upon to speak of and bear witness to a life is a great honor. So why not speak with intense joy, with great love, and brimming tenderness? What a great privilege to convey the tight bond of love.
Paul Boardman is a writer and interfaith funeral chaplain and celebrant living in Seattle. He grew up in Tokyo and is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.