Processing the death of a loved one is never easy. Even if they were terminally ill and you knew they would pass away within a certain time frame, nothing can truly prepare you for dealing with the actual loss. And sometimes, not only do we have to process a death—we may also have to speak publicly about the person in front of a group of people who are also in mourning.
Yes, being asked to give and/or write a eulogy can be a big honour, but it can also be very stressful. Of course, you want to properly pay tribute to the deceased, but you are also probably grieving yourself and may not want to deal with the pressure of speaking at someone’s funeral or memorial. So where do you even start? Here’s a step-by-step guide to writing and delivering a eulogy.
What are people looking for from a eulogy?
Before you even begin the writing process, it may be helpful to consider what people are looking for from a eulogy. According to Funeral Wise, a website with information from experts on almost anything related to death and funerals, a eulogy should accomplish three things: paying homage to the deceased, acknowledging the importance of their unique life, and capturing some of the memories related to that person.
Similarly, Diana Raab, Ph.D., a writer and speaker with a doctorate in psychology, tells Lifehacker that those listening to a eulogy want to get a sense of the person and the life they have lived. Having said that, there’s no right or wrong way to write a eulogy. “The most important aspect about writing one is that it should be written from the heart,” she explains. “It should sound like the writer actually knew and appreciated the person.”
Go easy on yourself
It’s really important to acknowledge and accept that you are likely grieving at the very time when you’re supposed to be writing—and then delivering—the eulogy. Processing loss can do a number on your brain and cognitive function, including resulting in losing focus on everyday tasks or your job—let alone writing a eulogy. Keep this in mind as you start to prepare your remarks. If you are finding it difficult to concentrate or even know where to start, know that this is perfectly normal. The folks at Funeral Wise recommend stopping for a moment and taking a breath if you find yourself getting emotional, giving yourself a chance to work through those feelings.
While writing the eulogy, you may feel as though there’s pressure to perfectly capture and honour a person’s life, and that you don’t want to let other people down. Remember that you will have an incredibly supportive audience when you deliver the eulogy, and they will understand that doing this wasn’t easy for you.
Before you start writing
Staring at an empty page, trying to fill it with words to comfort people in their time of loss can be daunting, so doing a little prep work beforehand will help. Remember that even though you may be the one writing and delivering the eulogy, there are probably plenty of other people with memories and thoughts about this person. Don’t be afraid to tap them for ideas and anecdotes, and ask any questions you have for them, Funeral Wise suggests. Once you do that, make a list of some of the things you might want to talk about in the eulogy, pulling from other people as well as your own thoughts.
If you’re not entirely sure what to include, try the H.A.M. method. According to Funeral Wise, this can be a helpful way to hit on the major points of someone’s life in a few short minutes. H.A.M. stands for highlights, attributes and memories:
Highlights: What were the person’s major accomplishments and significant events in their life?
Attributes: What was the person like?
Memories: Are there any special moments that provide insight and evoke emotion?
In some cases—especially if a person is ill and knows they are dying—they may start to make their own funeral arrangements, or at least make certain requests, like who will give the eulogy. This was the case before my mother passed away after having cancer. Not only did she tell me that she wanted me to give her eulogy, she also said that she wanted it to be funny. “People are going to be very, very sad at my funeral,” she told me, with a completely straight face. “I want you to go up and say funny things about me to make people laugh.” Of course, it’s not always this straightforward, but any clues or tips a person offers up while they’re still alive can be incredibly helpful while preparing their eulogy.
Once you have some ideas, see how you can connect some of these memories, stories and background on the person with a unifying theme, taking the deceased’s personality into account. According to Funeral Wise, potential themes of the eulogy may become apparent as you start to prepare your remarks, and it’s possible that multiple themes emerge:
For example, you might start out by reflecting on some of the serious passions that were important to the person you are eulogizing and then work in some humorous stories. Or you might choose to set the eulogy up by asking a question or telling one particular story that you think sums up the life of the person you are writing about. The overriding theme will tie your eulogy together.
Now that you have some ideas and a theme, get your thoughts organised into some sort of outline. Sketch out what you want to talk about and in which order to give yourself a framework for filling in the rest of the details.
Writing the eulogy
Even if you are a seasoned public speaker, it’s helpful to have all—or at least most—of the eulogy written out before you deliver it. There will be a lot happening in the moment, and it’s better to have what may otherwise seem like obvious details written down before you start.
For example, Raab recommends opening by introducing yourself and how you knew the deceased. Chances are you won’t know every single person in attendance that day, and this will help everyone place you and know where you’re coming from, at least in terms of your relationship to this person. Along the same lines, she suggests offering regret to the closest loved ones in attendance.
Now that you’re filling in your outline and have selected which stories you’re going to share, try and remember as many details about them as possible. “The more specific, the better,” Raab says. So instead of just saying that the deceased like to help people, for example, mention a specific time and place when they did so, to help paint a more vivid picture of their life.
And while you’re figuring out exactly what you’re going to share, be consistent with your tone and how you share it, Raab says. As she notes, “this is not a time for revenge”—make sure to keep your remarks about the person positive. Raab also recommends ending the eulogy with words of wisdom from the deceased. It’ll help tie everything together and leave the audience with a fond memory and something to take away from a difficult day.
Once you have a full draft of the eulogy, go through and edit it. Start by reading it out loud: this will give you a good idea of what sounds repetitive and can go, and which areas you may need to flesh out a bit more. It’ll also help you determine if any parts sound clunky or awkward before you actually have to deliver these words in public. If you feel comfortable, ask someone for feedback on the edited version to see if there are any other spots you can tighten or improve.
If you are one of many people speaking at a funeral or memorial, Raab says to consider the other speakers and try to offer a different perspective. Of course, every service is different, but if multiple people are giving eulogies, Raab recommends keeping it between three and six minutes long. If you’re the only one speaking, though, you can go up to 10 to 15 minutes—though by no means should feel pressured to do so. As far as a word count, it really depends on how quickly you speak, but a 10-minute eulogy is usually around 1,300 words. If you’re unsure of how long it should be, check with the person making the arrangements, or presiding over the service—they should be able to offer some guidance.
Delivering the eulogy
As with any other speech or presentation, you’re going to want to practice giving your eulogy ahead of the actual event. Raab suggests reading it to yourself in front of the mirror. The more you go over the eulogy before the service, the better prepared you’ll be in the moment.
Of course, there’s no rule saying that the person who writes the eulogy also needs to deliver it. If you’ve written the eulogy but don’t feel as though you are able to give it yourself, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone else to read it on your behalf. In fact, Funeral Wise suggests having a backup even if you fully intend on delivering the eulogy yourself. Though you may not need the person to step in, just knowing that the option exists may be comforting.
Once you’re actually up in front of the group giving the eulogy, remember to speak slowly and clearly. Give people time to react to any funny parts or regroup after an especially emotional moment. Try and relax as much as humanly possible while delivering a eulogy. If you have the chance to scope out the podium or microphone ahead of time, do so. This will give you an idea of what to expect and work through any quirks, like needing to adjust a microphone or figure out where to put your hands, or a bottle of water.
If you’re concerned about getting overly emotional up there, Funeral Wise recommends avoiding eye contact with people in the congregation:
There will be guests that will react emotionally to parts of your message or just to the funeral itself. Emotion is contagious. Instead of looking at the guests in the eyes, try to look just above the audience or just at the audience as a whole.
But if you do lose your composure, that’s perfectly fine, too. And as nervous as you may be, know that the audience is on your side. Like you, they’re grieving, and no one is expecting a flawless speech that’s equal parts moving and entertaining. If that’s what you end up giving, great. But if you get sidetracked or skip over something or do anything else you may perceive as being a mistake, know that those in attendance probably won’t notice, and if they do, they know that you’re going through a lot. By standing up in front of your friends and family and possibly a bunch of people you don’t know, you are providing everyone with a few moments of reflection on the life of a person who means something to everyone in the room.