I recently received a  panicked phone call from a potential client that went something like this:

“Hey, I need some help.  The wife of a colleague of mine asked me to delivery a eulogy at his funeral.  But see, I can’t think of anything I can say about this guy that isn’t….well, anything appropriate  for mixed company, you know?  So I told her no.  But now I’m wondering if maybe that was the wrong thing to do.  What do you think?”

I gave the man my opinion, which was that the family that had asked him to perform this task had given him an honor, likely after careful consideration, and that the request  was not something to be dismissed lightly.

I was a bit taken aback when my caller later informed me that the fellow was not quite dead yet, so there was no rush to prepare the material–in fact, they’d had lunch just last week….!

The point is, that request was made because the family was entrusting him to honor his colleague’s memory, and they chose him for a reason. So the gracious thing to do is accept, despite any misgivings about not having the right words to say or thoughts to share.  Or your fears about public speaking .

Preparing and delivering a  eulogy doesn’t have to be a biography, it doesn’t have to be a resume, it doesn’t necessarily have to be sombre, and it certainly doesn’t have to be long;  it simply should touch the audience, help them to share in some memories, and to celebrate what was good in the deceased’s life.   And often that means  sharing what the person meant to you.

You’ve probably already guessed where I”m going with my advice:  tell a story! Illustrate a quality or trait or experience of that person by sharing a story about him or her,  ideally, one in which you are involved. Since most people in the audience were familiar, at least peripherally, with the deceased, you will have their rapt attention if you can tell them something about the person–a humorous anecdote, trait, interest or good deed–that they don’t already know.

Here is Tom Hanks, conversationally and affectionately relating a story at the memorial for Michael Clarke Duncan:

And if you can’t think of a firsthand story to relate, here are some ideas that may help :

  • talk to a close family member or friend..anyone who was important to the deceased
  • for a close family member, pull out old photo albums, walk around their house or garden, go through some old letters or emails you may possess
  • make some notes about special moments you had together or feelings about the person that  come to mind
  • if it’s not a family member, think about how and when and where you and that person become close
  • think about what you or others admired most about this person
  • think about what you will miss most

Once you have made some notes and have some stories and memories to share, decide on what quality it is about the person that you will focus on or illustrate the most.   You may not be the only speaker and you can’t cover everything;  what is the point you especially want to people to remember? Perhaps, like Tom Hanks, you can illustrate a character trait from youth that stands in charming counterpoint to the kind of adult the person you are remembering eventually became.

My caller was concerned that he could not come up with any memories that were not a little off-colour.  Similarly, people often agonize when they need to eulogize a person who was notoriously difficult, or troubled. But your job as a eulogist is to celebrate a life, and to highlight the best qualities or talents of that person .  Now is not the time to sit in judgement, and remember, too, that those listening are not there to judge you.  If the person was difficult, it’s likely those in the audience already know it and don’t need you to remind them.

If poetry is your thing or lyrical or metaphorical language comes naturally to you, by all means, incorporate some into your piece. But if not, a warm, conversational,  tone should put both you and the listeners at ease, and help keep boredom at bay.

So, if asked to speak at a funeral or memorial service, take a deep breath and then

  • Gather your memories, and write them down
  • Compose a story (or a couple) that you will tell, conversationally–one that illustrates your relationship or the qualities of your subject that you wish to highlight
  • Remember that you’ve got an entirely sympathetic audience, so relax and let them support you as you speak by looking out directly at your audience, and at individuals you know will empathize with your words. (Remember too that they will understand if you become emotional.)
  • Keep it brief:  one elegant paragraph, one memory is enough if that’s all you’ve got! Look what Tom Hanks did with one remembered story!