It is a privilege and a burden to bear the responsibility of delivering a public address celebrating the life of a loved one. I recently wrote and delivered my father’s eulogy, and though I have both writing and performing experience, I found the task heavy and difficult to approach.
After several drafts over almost three months (yes, my Dad was still living when I began—read on!), I arrived at a text I was pleased and proud to present at my father’s funeral. After speaking, I sat down with no regrets about what I had done or said. I remained confident and poised despite the stress of the experience. I received many compliments at the reception, and to this day friends remind me of how well I shared my father’s life.
Here’s how I did it. You can do it, too.
1. START EARLY AND START OFTEN. It seems morbid, but the sooner you begin putting thoughts to paper, even just bullet points, the task will become manageable. My Dad was hospitalized in June, and though at that point he recovered and returned home, I had a gut feeling he may not be long for this world. So I began writing and I am so glad I did. He passed away three months later in September. Writing a eulogy is an emotionally charged task. If written hastily under duress, you may miss important details, dwell on something that is actually less important, or forget significant moments all together. However, if the death of your loved one was sudden, you may not have the luxury of time. Don’t worry, keep reading. You can still do a great job.
2. COLLECT EVERYTHING YOU CAN THINK OF IN ONE PLACE. Write anecdotes, stories, funny memories, and any details immediately as you think of them. Have paper by your bedside and in the car. Dedicate a notes page on your phone (or a draft on your blog!) to anything you know you want included in the eulogy. When you are staring at the blank page or computer screen, have this comprehensive list with you. This way, it feels less like writing and more like just putting a structure to your notes. Use highlighters or post-its to organize like-topics, like Work, Family, Humorous Moments, etc. You will begin to see a flow, and begin to make choices about what should come first, or what story you want to end on. It is likely that you will use only a percentage of these notes, but you will quickly notice what subjects need more material, and you will be able to get over the writers’ hump of beginning.
3. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE; TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE UNIQUE OCCASION. Unless you’re Tom Sawyer, you’re only eulogized once. It is a unique opportunity, as the eulogizer, to meet and reconnect with old family friends, co-workers, and distant relations. After all, your subject is deceased–this speech is for the living. Unless your loved-one was unusually private, every anecdote or story you tell will already be familiar to someone in your audience. As you write each section, think about what details are important not only to you, but to the people in the audience who will remember “that time we all met there” or “the day when…” Don’t be afraid to contact people to get their version of events. As you write, pretend you are speaking directly to those people who will emotionally connect to those memories. It will make the story more personal, and others in the audience hearing the story for the first time will feel a personal connection, too.
4. AVOID CLICHES OR PLAY OFF OF THEM. As a general writing rule, cliches are to be avoided. There are scads of overused phrases associated with eulogies that can put your audience to sleep. I challenge you to skip canned sap, like “our dearly departed,” and “he’s in a better place now.” Think of something better, OR use the lull-inducing language to your advantage. I chose to begin my Dad’s eulogy with “My father was born.” This is an expected beginning for the kind of laundry list, resume-type eulogy we have all heard before. But I chose to turn it on its heel, setting the tone at the start of the speech that this was going to be something different. This is how the first two sentences of my father’s eulogy read: “My father was born. And almost 61 years later he died.” Draw them in with something familiar, then hit them with a twist. Keep your audience on the edge of their seats. (Cliche intended.)
5. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, THEN PRACTICE AGAIN. First, prepare your text for public reading. Here’s the best way:
> Format the speech with one paragraph per page, so your pauses to turn the page coincide with the end of a thought. Built-in, fool-proof dramatic pause.
> Forget grammar rules–Add extra punctuation. Does it sound better splitting those clauses with a period for effect? Go ahead. Start that sentence with “Because” if it makes your speech read the way you want it.
> Make the font HUGE. I printed mine double spaced with 18-point Times New Roman because I could see it at a glance while standing up straight at the lectern.
> Also, number the pages. Seems like a “duh” tip, but numbering keeps everything in order so you don’t have your great-aunt Millie getting married AFTER she died in that terrible train wreck.
Once you have your text, read it aloud. Then READ IT AGAIN. And again. And again. Become super familiar with it. This is good advice for any public presentation. But in the case of delivering a eulogy, the repetition will allow you to become emotional BEFORE reading it to the crowd. Practice reading the words without tearing up. This is more difficult than you think. You never know when grief will hit you, but you don’t want it to paralyze you to where you can’t even finish the words you carefully wrote. You cannot over rehearse. Trust me.
6. LET IT GO. You have chosen beautiful words. You have formatted your text and prepared well, even if only over a few days. Know that you will do your best, then let it go. Let expectation and worry and guilt and WHATEVER STANDS IN YOUR WAY go take a hike. Honor your loved-one. Stay in the moment, trust the work, and you will do fine. Cheers to a life lived, and a eulogy well-delivered!
I hope this guide is helpful to anyone preparing for this difficult responsibility. My sincere condolences to you now, or in the future–whenever the task is before you. What public speaking and speech writing ideas do you have to add? Please leave a comment below! I would love to hear from you!