Writing a fitting tribute to a lost family member or friend can be hard, especially at a time when you might be grieving too. Here are some tips to get you started.
What is a eulogy?
A eulogy is a short speech given at a funeral or memorial service for a person who has died. The tradition originates from ancient Greece, and the word literally means something like "praise”. That doesn’t mean you can only say nice things about the person. The key is to remember them in a way that does their life justice and respects their loved ones’ memories and feelings of grief.
Who should make it?
Speaking about someone who has died in front of their family and friends is a courageous thing to do. If you feel daunted by the prospect, ask people around you for support. While a eulogy is usually written by a close relative or friend, it can also be made by an official, such as a religious leader. Do what feels right and keep it flexible. For example, if you want to write the eulogy but worry about breaking down in tears, ask someone else to be on standby to read it for you if need be.
Make it personal
Introducing yourself in relation to the person you are remembering can be a good place to start. Describe what they meant to you, and what qualities defined them in your eyes. This will establish a connection with other people at the service and put you in the picture for those who might not know you very well.
Cover the fundamentals
Like with any piece of writing, it’s a good idea to structure a eulogy with a beginning, a middle and an end. And while it is not the same as an obituary, it usually includes brief aspects of the late person’s life, such as their early beginnings, their education and career, and particular skills, achievements or interests. Saying something specific about their family life, and mentioning their partner or children by name, can feel particularly important to their closest relatives.
Talk to other people
Just like our relationships with a particular person differ, so do our feelings about them when they die. To make sure your eulogy will feel meaningful to others, ask a few close friends or relatives to contribute by sharing a favourite memory, a story or anecdote. A diversity of perspectives will enrich your speech and help strike the right tone right with your audience. You might also discover a true gem in the process, like a beautiful quote that perfectly captures your loved one’s personality, qualities and quirks.
Think about length
Some eulogies are very brief and there are no set rules for length, but 3-5 minutes is common. Make it long enough to properly honour the person and say what needs to be said, in proportion with the rest of the service. To get it right, try reading your text out a few times while timing yourself and editing accordingly.
It is possible to talk about someone’s achievements and qualities without glorifying them and mention shortcomings or disappointments in a kind and accepting way. None of us are perfect, and we remember those we have lost in all their human complexity. Follow your instincts, even using some gentle humour if it feels right and relevant. And if you’re not sure, ask someone else for their honest feedback before you finalise.
Find a fitting ending
Ending a eulogy on the right note can be tricky. One option is to finish with a poem or quote that feels consoling and meaningful, even if it happens to come from Star Trek or Lord of the Rings. You might find inspiration in famous eulogies, such as Matthew’s tribute to his partner Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Oprah Winfrey’s speech for Rosa Parks, Mona Simpson remembering her brother, Steve Jobs, or in books and online quote collections.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines about death, by the poet Edith Sitwell: “Love is not changed by death, and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest.”