This blog entry is in response to an assignment in my writing class. The instruction was to create a “Craft Paper.” As I understood it, we were asked to explore some aspect of the writing process or some type of writing. Here, the topic is writing and delivering eulogies.
Writing for Giving Praise as if Life Depended on It
“Arthur Sigmund Farber is dead, and we have come together to mourn and to pay tribute to his life. We have come to review, reflect and understand once again what he was, what he believed, what he fought for, and how Arthur has – and still will – affect us in our lives, in this world. And he still will affect us because Arthur Farber was a quite remarkable man.”
- Daniel Farber, Age 25, Portion of Eulogy for Father
My father, Professor Arthur Farber, taught a course called Death and Dying at the University of Washington School of Social Work. As a class highlight, he would take his students on a weekend retreat and ask them to write an autobiographical eulogy. It was a neat trick, really. A strategic tool designed to get each student thinking about their life. To assess what really matters… in the end.
Aging, death and dying were regular parts of our home’s dinnertime conversations. One wintry evening, we even hosted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross for dinner and professional dialog. As a hilarious bonus, Elizabeth tutored me through my middle school German lesson. Stages of grief indeed!
So it is with humility, and some dose of shame, that I recall my teenage self being anxious and awkward at communicating with the ill and dying. In one memorable incident, I visited a dear family friend who had cancer. Hers was a gloomy prognosis, and I did not know how to approach our conversation. Surprisingly, she recovered to live 10 more years! Yet I remember feeling that with my family academic inheritance, I should have known better how to converse with a terminal patient. I should have done better.
As it turns out, I and most everyone else who has the privilege to grow old, get plenty of practice conversing about death and dying. Both talking with the dying and talking about the recently dead. Usually, this talk is spontaneous and informal. But occasions for formal writing and speaking about the recently departed tend to come up with increased frequency as one ages.
I have volunteered or found myself asked more than half a dozen times to perform eulogies at memorial services. These opportunities for research, writing and oral presentation have been profoundly gratifying. The eulogizing process deepens and informs the grief process. It heals the writer, certainly no less than it serves other mourners.
To better understand why it has been of such benefit, I decided to look into the history, purpose and process of writing and delivering a eulogy.
Civilization: Writings about Death and Life
Death is a central concern of the living. Humanity has always placed great importance on public rites of mourning. Many – perhaps most – funerial rituals do not place a layperson’s eulogy as a central expectation. Often, the professional clergy take on that responsibility. Yet, some form of praise and honor for the dead seems a universal ritual.
A core Islamic rite in China is the speaking of the “Hundred-Word Eulogy.” African-American eulogetic practice derives from a fusion of African indigenous religious tradition and primarily Christian New World ritual. The ancient Greek practice of epitaphios logos, or the Athenian funeral oration, established formal speech expectations during funerary ceremonies. Honoring the dead, and their contribution to the polis, was essential for the ongoing health of the polis.
The word eulogy itself comes from the Greek eu- meaning “good” and -logia meaning “words.” Its focus is on the praising of an individual, and for the most part, eulogies are oral prose presentations – speeches aimed for delivery at memorial events.
Eulogies can be distinguishable from similarly written expositions, though there are many overlapping characteristics. Consolatios are a wide range of literary devices used in ancient times, including speeches, essays, poems and letters, designed to console readers as they go through the mourning process. Elegies are poems of praise or tribute to the departed. They may be read at a funeral or provided in writing. Paeans are songs of praise or triumph. The subject may be an individual or many people or events. Panegryics are public speeches or public texts praising people or things. Eulogies are a kind of panegyric. Tributes are acts or gifts, but also statements, intended to show gratitude or respect to individuals or groups. Obituaries are written tributes to individuals found in newspapers or other broadly accessed media. They usually contain a very short description of the major relationships, events, and accomplishments of the individual. Biographies are generally longer and attempt to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the individual’s impact on family, friends and the larger society. Epitaphs are expressions found on a gravestone.
All those terms are, to an extent, eulogistic. They are attempts, through words, to rise to the high challenge of praise as a means of healing through mourning.
Eulogies in American Popular Culture:
Eulogies in the United States are often delivered by a close relative or friend of the deceased at the funeral or memorial. They are opportunities to both express deep emotion and connect the subject’s life to the lives of the rite’s participants.
The first eulogy I ever delivered was at my father’s funeral. In practical terms, it was a team effort, described in its beginning as:
“the product and process of family members coming together with their special memories, of excerpts from Arthur’s recent journal, and of past letters he has written us. We see this effort as a part of our mourning, as well as our healing and our learning. Let us use this time of his death as a focus toward his life, and ours.”
I subsequently delivered or had a significant hand in writing eulogies for my mother and sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, friends and colleagues. Never once did I prepare by researching the structure or approach to writing eulogies. Nor have I read any of the numerous books on the topic with such titles as “The Art of Writing a Eulogy” or “Eulogy Writing: For Beginners! How to Write The Perfect Eulogy & Funeral Speech.”
 Those titles come from an Amazon.com book search for “Eulogies.”
Of course, now, like every other aspect of modern life, when a question comes up, one can “ask Google.” If the question is raised “What should be included in a eulogy?”, the Googled response is:
- Retell your favorite stories from growing up together.
- Highlight the kind of person she was.
- Summarize your relationship in a few short words.
- Talk about what she meant to you and how she influenced your life.
Entire websites – businesses – are built upon the premise that people need assistance in the writing of eulogies. Speech Form https://www.speechform.com/ is one such site. It provides a fill-in-the-blank approach to guidance, i.e., “___ was a very special guy and I really miss him.”
Eulogizing has been a source of galvanizing people toward emotional and political unity. President Ronald Reagan’s statement after NASA’s Challenger disaster not only saved the space program but also improved his popularity. He poetically proclaimed:
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
President Clinton’s ranking in public opinion polls soared immediately after his eulogizing the fallen from the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing:
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
Hollywood movies have many examples of eulogies as a way to humanize their characters and emotionally connect audiences to their stories. Here’s one example from the comedic movie Trainwreck : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVXT4sv2JI4
Considerations for the Writing and Presentation of Eulogies
There are no rules for how to write and give a eulogy, nor even expected principles of prose or performance. My own experiences in listening to and giving eulogies does not provide proof of their quality nor the value of their reception. Nevertheless, reflection and self-evaluation on these examples has left me with eulogistic approaches that have “felt right” and seemed to work for me. So, I provide some ideas to consider, if the task – and opportunity – to eulogize is to fall upon you.
- Start with inquiry. Contact the subject’s loved ones and those who cared about and knew the subject. Ask them what was most important, striking and distinctive about the person. Ask them for stories or specific memories that they could share which capture the essence of the person. These could be happy memories or just memories of import. Tell people that you would like to share their memories with others, if possible, either in a eulogy or other mechanism. If people respond to your inquiry in writing, all the better if you can quote their responses in the eulogy.
- Eulogies are wonderful opportunities for subjects to express their own beliefs and self-descriptions, if you can find and use examples of their writings. If you have such examples, read and select the most representative of them. Ask others for examples of a subject’s writings. They may be formal documents written for professional use, or simple personal letters or notes. All writings can provide insight into the nature of the subject.
- Eulogies should give a sense of the positive impact of a subject on family, friends and the world. The eulogist’s goal is praise, yes, but also accuracy. Life throws everyone loops. Challenges. Hardships. How did the subject deal with those? Are there stories of overcoming adversity? How was it done? What was the effect on the subject and others?
- What did the subject accomplish in their life? What were they proud of? What were they known for? Can you describe significant moments throughout their life, from birth through death?
- Talking about a person who just died is talking about life. Theirs, yours, others, and an argument to be made about universal truths. What does their life say about what is important in life? What can people learn from the example of the subject?
- Death is about loss and sadness and pain, so it is important to include loss as part of the summing up about the subject. What will you and others miss? If the subject was very old and had a wonderful life, there is still a hole. If the person died an untimely death, be it accident, crime, or illness, there will inevitably be a greater sense of tragedy in the eulogizing moment.
- The means of death is likely something that people will want to know about. Not all the details, but at least the core cause of death. Then people will benefit from your, or others, reactions to that cause.
- There should be humor to the extent that you believe the subject would appreciate it and the audience would be receptive. If the humor could come from quotes from the subject, all the better. The nature of humor can bring out distinctive aspects of a subject’s character.
- The spoken delivery is a vital part of the communication, and should match as much as possible or knowable, the character of the subject. Talking slowly, with clear enunciation and volume is essential. Emotional resonance comes from whatever is real for the speaker. Crying is not only appropriate, but often unavoidable. Yet the orator must also stay audible. For the audience to see the eulogist’s emotions, gives permission for their own emotions to present.
- If you are lucky enough to have samples of the subject’s writings or music or other artistic creations, it is a wonderful opportunity to interweave them into the eulogy. Perhaps you can have different people read excerpts from the subject’s letters/emails or other writings. This brings the subject “alive” in a real way.
- If you know what the subject enjoyed or took solace from or strongly believed in, it would be of special value to include that somehow in the eulogy. Did the subject have a favorite author? A favorite quote? A favorite sports team? Anything that distinguished the subject in the eyes of others, would be of great value in the description of the subject’s life.
- Finally, if possible, find a way to include those present in the content of the eulogy. Find a way to recognize the importance of them in the life of the subject.
A life cannot fully be summed up by eulogizing. But putting together a eulogy is an opportunity to give the gift of attention to a person. To think of them intently and to attempt to pay great respect for their life, and for those whose lives the person touched. Delivering a eulogy heightens the critical moments of shared grief, and if you are fortunate to grow old and retain the document, the opportunity for many years of reflection and sweet, recoverable memories.