Whether a life is long and full or ended too soon; finding the right words to share at a funeral about that life, is one of the hardest things to do.
It is fair to say that no life can be summed up in twenty-five minutes, or even in an hour. But often that is the amount of time allowed for a traditional funeral service by most crematorium and cemetery chapel facilities these days. Of course, for those choosing to hold their loved one’s funeral service at a non-conventional venue, time restraint is usually less of a consideration.
Wherever the funeral is going to be, it is the last time family and friends will spend with their loved one. For these reasons, even more so, it is really important when bereaved people gather together at a funeral; that the occasion is remembered fondly, and they are able to leave with a sense of warmth and comfort.
So whilst it is true that a few words won’t ever be enough to say all there is to say about a loved one no longer with you; there can be such a difference if what is said has a real depth of feeling and meaning.
It is the detail within the life events; the feelings, the sounds, the smells and the sights, which bring those times back to life. If you want to write your own eulogy, or if you are creating one with the assistance of a friend, minister or Celebrant; here are some tips and advice to make the memory of your loved one really shine.
How long should a eulogy be?
Try to keep your eulogy to between 1000 and 1300 words. The ideal talking pace is around 120 words per minute; so, a eulogy of these lengths at that pace would take 8 to 10 minutes.
How to deliver a eulogy
Never be tempted to ad lib. Standing in front of a grieving congregation, when you are grieving too makes the task of public speaking even more difficult. Controlling your emotions requires a lot of energy.
Not having a prepared speech creates the risk of you forgetting to say things or going off topic. But more commonly, a lack of preparation results in the eulogy words being much shorter, or longer, than you hoped for.
Once you have written down what you want to say: Practice, practice, practice! Read out loud and watch yourself speak. This lets you check for your own mannerisms or habits and see how others will see you.
Containing emotion when delivering a eulogy
It is impossible to provide a list which covers every eventuality, as we all respond differently to emotion; but here are some tips which may be effective:
The more you practice out loud ahead of the funeral service, the more your brain will enable a de-sensitisation to what is being said.
Visual/word prompts on your printed scripts, to remind you that are doing well - a smiley face, a reminder to pause and take a breath, a thumbs up to let you know you are doing a great job.
What to put in a eulogy
What you put into a eulogy is not prescribed. Focus on the periods of life which really mattered to the person you are going to speak about, the periods of life they really enjoyed or thrived in. There is no need to start with their birth and work along their life’s timeline. Start with a funny story, a meaningful memory or by quoting one of their favourite phrases.
Once you have identified something you want to talk about, focus on how that felt, how your loved one responded to it, how it makes you feel thinking about it now.
It’s the details, the little things which are so personal to you and them, which can make such a difference. Include your congregation in it too. Using phrases such as “as you all know” or “I am sure you will remember” will encourage your congregation to recall their personal memories and connect with them. Therefore, feeling part of that ceremony. Below is an example of how a tribute could be re-worded to elicit emotion and a sense of really understanding what it was like to be there.
Mother loved books, she also loved to read in peace most days. One of her favourite authors was George Eliot, who made mention of loving his mother’s face. Well, we all loved her. And she loved us all too.
Mother got into bed with us at night and sang us lullabies. She knew how to comfort us. She always played records from the musicals so that we all knew them before we started nursery. I hear them still now, in my mind and they remind me of mum and those summer afternoons when she loved to play her music.
Mum, as you know, had a quiet passion for literature. One of her favourite authors; George Eliot; wrote: “Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face”
A beautiful observation, so very true. We all loved her instantly; a love that never faltered on our part or hers.
When I was small, she held me close at bedtime; the faded smell of her perfume clung sweetly to my little nose. She sang me lullabies and tenderly stroked my forehead until I gave in to sleep.
On sunny, summer Sunday afternoons mum loved to play her records on the gramophone. The crackle from the needle on the vinyl was something really nostalgic for mum. We listened to songs from the musicals so often, that before I started nursery, I knew them by heart.
Songs which still play in my mind, recalling those days when the sunlight caught mum’s face through the window, and she looked like an Angel to my four-year-old self.
The second example makes you think about the finer details. Quoting from mum’s favourite book shows interest and meaning. The smell of mum’s perfume will be something never forgotten, and a powerful reminder of love and loss. The sensation of the forehead being stroked and how that invoked a sleepiness. The joy music played in their lives; not just how it was listened to, but where and when and what came from it. The crackle of an old record player, the sun shining through a window onto a face. The child’s brain connecting that image and feeling to their idea of an angel. Twice as many words but what a difference.
Here are a couple more examples of capturing senses from real eulogies
- Catherine’s favourite film was Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Catherine admired Audrey’s beauty and class. She gently raised an ‘approving’ eyebrow at Gregory’s pecs. With her feet tucked underneath her to keep them warm; Catherine settled down to her favourite movie with a cup of hot chocolate and a box of Maltesers. She loved to float the little honeycomb balls in her drink and with an occasional ‘ouch’ and an ‘arghh’; Catherine fished them from the piping hot liquid, savouring them before the chocolate had fully melted. That empty space Catherine occupied on the sofa always makes me think of her there, with her fluffy socks and chocolate fingertips and the sweet smell of her hot sugary drink.
- Picture the scene; You’re in an upstairs room, of a beautifully kept house. You see Pat, just a few years ago. She is stood with a paint brush in her hand. There is a pot of paint beside her. In the room is a bed – with a sturdy frame. There is a length of rope and an open window. What is about to happen? Well, I will tell you. Septuagenarian Pat is about to bungee out of her bedroom window to paint the external walls of her house. Yes, Pat lived her life on the edge; Once she set her mind to a task it would be done! And if that meant tying a rope around her waist and dangling from a window to paint a wall, she would. After all, that was far more exciting than googling for a decorator!
Other tips for writing a eulogy
Begin by making notes
Start with a bit of brain storming. Keep notes as they come to your mind; record thoughts on your phone or write them down. Not all creativity comes the moment you sit at a desk. Sometimes it arises in the queue at supermarket or out walking the dog. Later you can bring all these ideas together as you construct your speech.
Topics areas to consider
Here are some topics areas which may help you get started. If you don’t know, then ask friends, neighbours, colleagues and other relatives. It is amazing how much insight others can give.
- Family life
- Parenthood / Parenting
- Working life
- Hobbies, interests and talents
- Personality / Beliefs / Characteristics
Other questions to ask yourself
- What 3 words best describe them to you?
- List things they loved and things they hated. Food, drink, music, tv, radio, magazine, games.
- What did they sound like? The accent, softness of voice, the way they pronounced words.
- Smell - Is there a fragrance, or scent which was synonymous with them? E.g. Baking, coffee, sun lotion etc
- What did they feel like? Soft skin, warm hands, cold nose, knobbly knees when you sat on them as a child?
- What did they look like? Any striking features? Eye colour, the shape of their mouth when they smiled. The way they wore their hair or how it was coloured.
- Any catchphrases or regular sayings?
- Most admirable quality?
- Lasting influence? What is it about them that you will always hold close, never forget, hope to pass on to others?
Fine tuning your tribute
Have you said their name enough? How many times is enough you may wonder? Well, as many times as you can. Look at the difference here.
- Joan had a sense of humour that was observational. She found things like silly hats on others hysterical and once she got started with the giggles, it was almost impossible to stop her. She was a lady with a gentle sense of humour. In her later years she shared many jokes and funny stories with her dear friend June. But there was more to her.
- Joan had terrific observation skills. Skills which Joan applied to her great sense of humour. Joan would laugh at people wearing silly hats. Joan thought it hysterical. And when Joan found something hysterical, Joan got uncontrollable giggles. Joan shared many jokes and stories with her dear friend June. Joan will be remembered as a lady with a gentle humour with a real depth of character.
Lists work well too, in place of narrative, as follows:
- Annemarie was a force to be reckoned with. But if you really knew her well; then you would have known; that with her brutal honesty, came a great wit and humour that she pulled off quite famously.
- A force to be reckoned with.
- Brutally Honest.
She was famous for it, wasn’t she?
It’s ready to share
Now you have completed your eulogy, you have practiced, and it feels and sounds the way you want it to. When you hear it out loud, your memory sense goes into overdrive and you can imagine yourself in those places which you talk about.
- Number your pages, so you don’t get muddled up.
- Type it up if you can.
- Once printed, put it into a folder or staple it together.
- Print in a larger font than you usually read.
- Add in extra lines and spaces, you could use symbols too. They will remind you to pause or slow down.
- Speak slowly, so when you share your words, the listener has a chance to not just hear them but to process them and appreciate them before you move to the next memory.
- Be proud of what you have achieved. There are few greater privileges than sharing personal memories at a funeral service.
If you would like further help or guidance with any of the topics raised in this article, contact Joanna, our Company Celebrant at: Joanna.Rose@cpjfield.co.uk