At some point in your life, you may be asked or you will offer to give a eulogy for a loved one. A eulogy is a speech that acknowledges and praises someone who has died. While the eulogy you give may be one of the most important speeches you will ever deliver, you may have a very short period of time to prepare, and you may experience a wide range of emotions while you are creating it.
Here are five strategies for writing a eulogy that will have the positive impact you intend and will leave a lasting impression with those who hear it.
Keep it short. While you have a plethora of stories you want to remember and share, your audience will have a shorter attention span because they are grieving. Unless you are told to do otherwise, keep the length to no more than four or five minutes. Three to four minutes is ideal. If you are speaking at a Catholic mass, the priest may ask you to keep it to about three minutes. Even in a less structured setting, less is more. Give your audience the gift of brevity.
Consider what your audience wants to hear and provide appropriate content. When I spoke at my Ukrainian grandmother’s funeral a couple of years ago, I thought about what would most make her family and friends smile. Everyone knew how she loved gardening and feeding people, so I told a story about how she would pick an enormous amount of strawberries–my favorite fruit –in the summer, freeze them with a little sugar on top, and then would produce this warmed-up succulent treat every time I visited her house in the winter. The story helped everyone in the church that day recall a time when my grandmother had joyously gifted them with fresh fruit or cooked up something scrumptious for them to eat.
Include a personal vignette–preferably one that is new for your audience–to reinforce the message they want to hear. I recently spoke at my paternal grandmother’s funeral. My grandmother was predeceased by two of her three children. I knew there would be eight grandchildren at the funeral who were not only grieving their grandmother, but also missing their parent. Each of them felt peaceful about my grandmother’s death, but few had been with my grandmother in her final days. I chose to share with them something my grandmother said in a quiet moment a few days before death. She said, “I’ve lived a good life. I’m ready to go.” And with hope in her voice, she said, “Maybe I’ll get to see my children again.” One of my cousins came up to me after the funeral and expressed how grateful he was that I shared her words and how happy he was that she felt that way.
Evoke emotion through your words, stories, and delivery techniques. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, will forget what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.” Be mindful of this. Choose intentionally which emotions you want to elicit with your eulogy and align everything you say with that.
Don’t memorize it. Referencing your notes while giving a eulogy is not only acceptable, it’s appropriate. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you will have a very short time to prepare. Focus your energy on being present to your own emotional process and the needs of the loved ones around you rather than investing time in memorizing a speech. Secondly, you will be delivering your eulogy in an emotionally-charged environment. You want to be able to remember all the points and all the stories that you have chosen to share. By all means, practice your delivery. Make eye contact. Connect with your audience. Also, feel comfortable referencing your notes as needed.
One final bonus tip: Bring copies of your eulogy with you. If your eulogy resonates with your audience, it is likely that someone will speak with you about it after the funeral. People want to hold onto parts from the day because they feel like they are losing so much. They may want to reread and revisit your eulogy later that day, a few months later, or the following year, when their grief has lifted a bit. Leave the copies in your bag or the car, and if someone asks, let them know that you have an extra copy they can keep.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Learning new speaking and writing skills while grieving is not ideal. If you have the time, review these strategies before you need them. My hope is that, when the time comes, you can be free to focus on the content you include in your eulogy rather than what form it will take. A eulogy may be one of the most important speeches you will ever give. Plan to do it well.