If you’re asked to give or write the eulogy at the funeral of a friend or loved one, you’ll likely experience a mix of emotions — honored and yet, nervous about how to give a speech that fully celebrates the deceased’s life, while giving comfort to those he or she left behind.
Writing and/or giving a eulogy is a weighty responsibility, but it is one you should try to embrace. It’s not every day you have the opportunity to contribute something meaningful to one of life’s most significant rituals. As long as you prepare well, and go into the funeral with thoughtful remarks and a full and prayerful heart, you’ll do fine.
Here are a few tips about writing and giving a eulogy that can be dignified and effective.
Decide on what kind of eulogy you’re going to give. Either life history, shared memories or a combo of the two.
Write the eulogy for your audience, not for you.
Be funny and sad.
Write your eulogy. Don’t try to wing it.
Keep it brief. (No longer than 5 minutes)
Practice, practice, practice (to get the cries out). And read it slowly and loudly. Remember, no one is able to read your words, so they must be delivered carefully in order to be understood.
Types of eulogies
Decide on what kind of eulogy you’re going to give. There are two basic types of eulogies you can offer:
Life history. This is a eulogy where you recall the life history of the recently deceased while highlighting achievements. You can often use the obituary as a guide in drafting a life history eulogy. This type of eulogy is simple and fact-based, and a good option if you don’t personally know the deceased very well.
Shared memories. With this type of eulogy, instead of covering the deceased’s entire life, you hone in on a few specific shared memories that you and the assembly have about the deceased. These detailed stories often highlight an attribute or virtue of the dearly departed, but mainly they allow the assembly to reminisce about good memories they had with him or her.
You also can combine the two to form a hybrid eulogy. Remember, this is a church homily and the church service celebrates the time where heaven and earth are connected. The Catholic funeral celebrates the resurrection of the deceased person, so even though memories should be shared, it is much more important to talk about that person’s values or faith life as a legacy for all to remember.
Focus on a central image
Often a central image in the eulogy will help people remember the deceased (for example this person was like a star, a flower, a rainbow, a deer, a fire, an ocean, a lake, a stream, a mountain, a tree, an artist, a sculptor, a dancer, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a mentor, etc.) Having a central image that you may begin and/or end with is a nice way to keep the eulogy centered and focused.
When to offer the eulogy
The eulogy should be offered at the beginning of the funeral service or memorial Mass once all have gathered. (It is even preferable to deliver the eulogy before the opening song). These are the best times for the eulogy to take place because those who are assembled can pray for and better remember the deceased. Many people may not know the memories you share, so hearing them at the beginning of the funeral service helps to center everyone’s prayer for the deceased person.
The rites after communion celebrate the final committal, burial and entrance into heaven, so when the eulogy is given at this time, it disturbs the flow of prayer and the focus of this part of the liturgy. It also draws people psychologically away and can weaken the grieving persons who need strength for what will happen after the service.
The eulogy is for the assembly, not for you. Keep in mind that you’re presenting to an assembly that has had its own experience and memories with the deceased. So sharing memories or life history that just touch on your personal interaction with him or her is a little inconsiderate. You can share some of those personal memories, but find ways to connect with all those who are assembled. For example, if co-workers will be in attendance, find a story about the deceased that they can relate to. If members of a community organization are there, include a vignette about his or her time serving with them. If lots of grandchildren will be coming to the funeral, share a story that you and the family can reminisce about.
If you don’t know many stories about the deceased, phone/ text/email others to ask them to share their memories. Most people will be happy to talk about their fond recollections of the dearly departed.
Try to mix together the heavy with the light. To really appreciate the bitterness of a loved one’s death, you need to contrast it with the sweetness of those joyful and even light and funny moments of his/ her life. So don’t be afraid to inject a bit of humor into your eulogy if you are able.
Put eulogy in writing
Write it out. Don’t think you can give a eulogy extemporaneously. Emotions will be close to the surface as you deliver it, so the chance of getting choked up and forgetting what you were going to say are high. To avoid this, write out your eulogy word for word and read it when you deliver it. Of course, as you’re reading, you don’t want to keep your nose buried in your notes. Glance down to see what you’re going to say for the next line or two, look up and at the assembly, and deliver those lines.
If you don’t write the eulogy word for word, a few things can happen. You will deliver it in a longer form that may become tedious and less effective, you may repeat yourself, and you may stumble over important parts that truly honor the deceased.
The other reason you’ll want to write it out is that family and friends will likely ask for a copy of it as a keepsake. You also can add it to any family history you might keep.
Keep it brief. While the eulogy is an important part of a funeral service, there are other parts, too. To prevent the funeral from going longer than it needs to, keep your eulogy brief, even if others say you’ve got all the time you want. Shoot for something around the five-minute mark; that’s plenty of time to say what you need to say, without the eulogy feeling like it goes on and on.
Remember, the eulogy is not about you, it is about the person you want to honor. If you take too long, it has the danger to overshadow the power of the service by making people anxious and tired. A strong eulogy can highlight the holiness of the day and set a good tone for the funeral and for faith to be celebrated.
Practice what you will say
Practice, practice, practice (to get the tears out). Remember, emotions are going to be close to the surface as you deliver your eulogy. That’s not a bad thing. Emotion demonstrates your sincere grief, but emotions also prevent your words from being heard. Assembly members think about your sorrow and not about the person you are trying to honor. If you’re consumed by choking sobs, you’ll diminish your ability to deliver the eulogy well during this final public chance to honor and celebrate the deceased’s life.
So, you have to find the golden mean between injecting your eulogy with emotion and speaking its words with clarity and clearness. What that means is speaking with real feeling, without being overtaken by crying.
To prevent such problems while you’re delivering the eulogy, get all your tears out the night before by practicing it over and over again. Read your speech again and again until you no longer cry when you read it, even at the really moving parts.
You may still cry, but try to keep it together. No matter how much you practice or how much you’ve cried the night before, seeing the teary faces of loved ones and friends as you share tender memories of the recently deceased may cause you to cry. That’s OK. It means you’re human and that you have a heart. A few tears or moments of getting choked up are fine, but try your best to gain composure so that the deceased person is truly honored.
If you do get choked up, pause for a moment, take a few breaths, wipe away any tears and start reading again. No need to apologize or make a big deal about choking up. People understand. You’re at a funeral. Just say “Excuse me,” and get back to the work of delivering your eulogy.
Consider one last thing — if you have the ability to write a beautiful eulogy but not the talent or the strength to deliver it, you can write it and make copies of it for people to read privately sometime after the funeral. Often, the written words will bring more consolation after the funeral than a spoken eulogy during the funeral.
Writing or delivering a eulogy means that you had a special relationship with the deceased, and that their loved ones feel you appreciated the person enough in life to be trusted with commemorating them in death. Giving a eulogy can truly be one of the biggest honors of your life, and the process of writing and delivering it will help you appreciate the life you are honoring even more.
Remember, you want to bring dignity and honor to the memory of the deceased person. Some true stories, unless they are centered in honorable values, may not need to be told. Every memory you have may not be important for others. Remember, this is your contribution to create a legacy for your loved one. Do your best to keep that legacy full of truth, dignified and honorable.