The wilted reverend: How to write a great eulogy

Last week, I found myself a little wilted after listening to eleven eulogies in only two funeral services. Yes, eleven. And while I listened to each one (which got to be rather challenging near the seventh or eighth, but I did my best) I realized that I have learned a great deal about eulogies since I led my first funeral some eighteen years ago. Add to that all I have learned from my funeral-director husband, and I have some solid wisdom to share. So, since I know that you want to honour your loved ones with beautiful send-offs, here are my suggestions:

1. One speaker is enough. Two are also good. Three are seldom necessary, and five or eight are a bad idea. Grieving listeners can process only so much. If you are asked to do that sixth eulogy, politely decline, no matter how much you loved your Aunt Beatrice.

2. Write it down. I know you think you can wing it. I can hear you saying that you give off-the-cuff presentations at work all the time. But funerals are different. Emotions are running high and you don’t want to blow it. Not only that, if you break down weeping before you have said everything you want to say, someone else (like me) can stand beside you and read it on your behalf.

3 . Keep it brief. See #1 for why. I recommend two to five minutes, or about 300-600 words. Trust me on this one.

4. Be specific. You could say, “She was a great cook,” but everyone already knows that. Instead, try, “She was fearless in the kitchen. She once made a delicious twelve-tiered wedding cake out of quinoa and spinach.” That tells your audience a whole lot more about how special your friend Lucy really was.

5. Tell stories. It is tempting to list a whole slew of adjectives, as in “Jack was loving and kind and had a great sense of humour.” However, telling a story about the time Jack played that dead fish prank on you in college will not only engage your listeners but help them appreciate Jack’s fun-loving character. Which leads me to…

6. Laughter is appropriate, but not necessary. Funerals are a combination of grief and gratitude, and laughter that remembers the person you love can be healing. As you write a eulogy, however, please don’t tell jokes. Also make sure that the humour is family appropriate. I wasn’t sure where to look when some years ago a man ended the eulogy with a rousing rendition of his uncle’s favourite song (to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It): “There’s a skeeter on my peter, whack it off…”

7. Most of all, be yourself. It’s ok to weep or laugh. If you need a moment to collect yourself, take it. No one expects or even needs perfect poise and grace in this difficult moment. Simply share your genuine love and admiration for the one whose loss you grieve. That will be a beautiful gift, and a perfect eulogy.

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About Kristine OBrien

Kristine O'Brien is minister at Trafalgar, Oakville, Ont. She blogs at The Blooming Reverend. Subscribe to this blog.