You may not need this advice today, but sometime in the future it is likely that you could be called upon to speak words of remembrance for a friend, coworker or loved one. When that time comes, it is important to understand what you have been asked to do — and what you have not been asked to do.
A “eulogy” is a “commendatory oration” in honor of the deceased, according to a dictionary definition. This is an old-fashioned word that may not be used in churches as much as it once was. Sometimes these spoken words get listed as “remembrances” or “memories.”
Properly done, the eulogy can become the most meaningful and most memorable part of a funeral or memorial service. Poorly done eulogies, on the other hand, inflict pain on everyone present. Every pastor can tell tales of enduring eulogies run amok.
For when you are called upon to give a eulogy, here are seven tips for doing the right thing in speaking well of the dead:
Write it down. No matter how much you pride yourself on being an extemporaneous speaker, write down what you want to say. Funerals are rife with emotion, and tears will sneak up on the bravest of speakers. Having something written down in front of you gives you something to draw your attention from the emotion of the moment and keep pushing forward. It also helps you be brief, but that’s a separate point.
Be brief. Remember the immortal words of Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Or remember the mortal words of my friend Doug: “No one ever was criticized for brevity.” A eulogy should be three to five minutes in length and seldom longer. The eulogist cannot give an encyclopedic account of the deceased’s life and times but instead must give highlights that illustrate the character of the person.
Talk about the deceased, not yourself. I once sat through a funeral where the adult son of the deceased spoke for 30 minutes in what was supposed to be a eulogy but actually was all about the life and times of the son with the father as an occasional sidekick. The only one who felt good about that experience was the son, who rambled on about himself with a captive audience to listen. As you write out your eulogy, pay attention to the number of times you use personal pronouns like “I” or “me” or “my.” It is appropriate to tell what you learned from the deceased, but it is inappropriate to make yourself the focus of the story.
Tell stories. The most powerful words to be spoken about a loved one come in the form of stories. Everyone present can read the obituary to get the dates and places and vital statistics. The eulogist faces the unique opportunity to bring the dry data to life by telling stories. Fill in the gaps, haul out the family favorites, remember the good times, give account of a life well-lived.
Humor is good, being a comedian is not. The best funerals acknowledge a tension between two competing ideas: Admitting that there is a tremendous grief and celebrating the wonder of life and the hope of resurrection in Christ. Within those bounds, well-placed humor may break the tension and allow everyone a breath of air. Telling funny stories about what the deceased has done or said brings joy, so long as the eulogist doesn’t attempt a stand-up comedy routine. When that happens, the attention goes to the comedian and not to the deceased. Remember, it’s not about you.
Tell it like it was. While no one wants to be remembered for their worst decisions or greatest mistakes, it also is not appropriate to sugarcoat what everyone knows was a difficult life. Respectful honesty goes a long way when speaking of the dead.
Remember your role. There is a difference between a “eulogy” and a “sermon” at a funeral. Ideally, someone will give a eulogy as personal words of remembrance. This is a different role than the clergyperson who may deliver a homily or brief sermon at the funeral. The task of the homily at a Christian memorial service is to give theological framework to what has happened, to offer words of comfort from Scripture, to interpret the unique life of the deceased in ways that help everyone present understand the goodness of God’s creation and the hope of eternal life in Christ. Sometimes where there is no eulogist, the pastor may do double duty with a message that is part eulogy and part homily. But when a eulogist precedes the pastor with a eulogy masquerading as a sermon, the congregation ends up getting two sermons and no eulogy.