Preparing the Eulogy

Preparing a Eulogy: A Step-By-Step Guide
Delivering a eulogy for a friend or family member is a wonderful way to participate in the funeral service. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the life lived, and to remind survivors of the memories and legacy left behind. Nearly any eulogy, if delivered with love and respect, can be considered a good one, and a funeral audience will be one of the most sympathetic and forgiving audiences you will ever find.

A funeral is a very important occasion and those in attendance are very emotionally fragile. Preparing and delivering a eulogy can make those unaccustomed to writing and public speaking very anxious. Understandably, the eulogist wants to get things right. The most important thing to remember as you go through this process is to focus on the deceased, rather than your own nerves and concerns. If you can do that you will be able to write a heartfelt tribute that expresses your feelings about the life you are there to remember and honor. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you create and deliver a meaningful eulogy.

Step One- Share Stories and Memories
One of the most wonderful and satisfying things we can do when we lose someone we love is to learn something new about that person from others. Whether you are preparing an obituary for someone you know intimately or for someone you may not know as well, it’s a good idea to start out by gathering ideas and stories first. Set aside a couple of hours to share stories and talk about the deceased with family and friends. Write down stories and memorable sayings as you go along. Learning these stories will help bring to mind your memories of the deceased and go a long way towards preparing your eulogy.

Step Two- Brainstorming and Editing
Brainstorming will be similar to your conversation with the family, only this time it’s just you. Write down any ideas that come to you about the deceased, whatever they happen to be. In this stage you don’t want to edit anything out. A small idea may lead to a great one, so just open up and allow any ideas to come out onto your paper. You’re looking for stories, perspectives, memories, music and food associated with that person; mental images about the life of the deceased. After you’ve brainstormed for an hour or so, step back and look at what you’ve got, along with the notes you took when talking with family and friends. Look for descriptive items that can paint a picture in the mind of the audience. Select the stories and images that stand out as being really representative of the personality of the deceased.

Step Three- Develop a Theme
The theme of your eulogy is a way to tie together some of the best stories, images, and impressions from your sessions into a somewhat unified piece. Don’t feel as though you need to make sense of the death, provide some profound insight, or ‘make things better’ by finding some silver lining or rationalization for the death. No one expects this of you, and trying to do this can make others feel like their grief is being minimized. It’s OK to just admit that the death is a terrible thing that we just don’t understand; that we are sad, hurt, even angry about the loss, but we’re gathered together to support one another and to remember our love for that person. Themes can be questions like:

  • “Who was Bob Miller?” A son, a husband, a brother, a mechanic, a sports fan…
  • “What makes a father special?” Giving you advice and letting you make mistakes on your own…
  • “What would this town be without Martha Evans?” No meals on wheels, no arts and crafts club, kids who never learned how to read…

These themes ask a question. The question is answered by all the stories and memories you’ve collected. Other themes could be:

  • “Courage in the face of adversity”
  • “He will live on through…”,
  • Metaphors, like “His life was like a garden”
  • A loosely organized series of stories like “All I know about life I learned from fishing with dad.”

The themes are there if you look. Perhaps it’s:

  • “The kitchen was the center of our family”
  • “The seasons of her life”
  • “He showed his love through his actions, not his words”
  • “She taught us all the importance of thrift”
  • “She taught us all the importance of having a good time”

Adding a quote or a reading to a eulogy can help organize your pieces and add another level and perspective to your piece, but don’t try to force your pieces together to fit the quote or reading. The honesty of the stories is more important that any theme, so if the important ideas don’t fit, choose a more loosely organized theme like:

  • “All the different sides of Uncle Charlie,” or
  • “What I learned from Mom”

You may find that more than one theme works best to present the material you have collected. That’s fine too. Your theme is important but should be subordinate to your content. Ultimately, the overarching theme of any eulogy is simply “the life of this person was important to us.”

Step Four- Weave Your Eulogy Together
Now is the time to put all you’ve got in order. Write the draft out just as you would say it. Use your normal conversational vocabulary and tone and avoid fancy or unfamiliar language. Don’t feel compelled to turn your tribute into a poem. What is important is clearly expressing your thoughts. Trying to do that and rhyme at the same time can work at cross-purposes.

A funeral is not the time to ‘set the record straight’ on contentious or unresolved issues. That would be a help and comfort to no one. It is important to work through these issues, but not at the funeral. Your eulogy needs to be a kind and respectful tribute, and it can be honest in spirit without going into detail about shortcomings or attacking the deceased. If you feel that you cannot give your eulogy without announcing to the world that mother had a drinking problem, or that Uncle Rex was unfaithful to Aunt Betty, let someone else deliver it. Start out your eulogy with a statement of your theme; a quote or reading that illustrates your theme, or a story that does the same. Whatever your theme, think of it as an ‘argument’ that you ‘prove’ in the body of your eulogy. If your theme is a question, you will answer that question with various examples though your eulogy. Don’t be afraid of getting things exactly right at this stage, just get it all down, then take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Step Five- Add and Edit
Does your eulogy make sense? Do your examples prove the point of your theme? Have you included the most important milestones in the person’s life? Have you included too many details? Would a quotation, a poem, or a prayer add something meaningful? Now is the time to make structural changes before you polish it all up. Think twice about anything that may be in questionable taste for a mixed audience or may be too sensitive to discuss publicly. If you are in doubt about this, run it by someone you trust. Another important idea to keep in mind is that while the eulogy may mention many people including you, it needs to be focused on the deceased. If your eulogy mentions you more than the deceased, you should consider making some revisions.

Step Six- Practice
Once you are pleased with reading the eulogy over in your head, it’s time to read it aloud. Practice reading clearly and slowly; giving your audience enough time to hear and understand all your hard work. Practice and practice again. The more familiar you are with your piece, the easier it will be to catch yourself if you falter, to look up from your notes and engage with your audience, and to put feeling and emphasis into your speech. Time yourself to see if your piece is too long or too short. A good guide is about 15 minutes. If you go longer than 20 minutes, you may have overstepped your bounds. If your eulogy is shorter than 5 minutes, you may not have said enough.

Step Seven- When You Deliver Your Eulogy, Be Sure to Speak Slowly and Clearly
Make sure you have a copy of your eulogy written out in large enough type that you can read it easily. Keep a glass of water, a cough drop, and a handkerchief handy as well. If you falter, or are overcome with emotion, allow yourself to cry (no apologies are necessary) and resume reading when you can. Try to look at the audience at least occasionally, and at the family as much as you can. Feel free to gesture with your hands but try not to fidget. If there is a microphone available, use it. Delivering a eulogy is a great honor. Friends and family will be forgiving of mistakes, and grateful to you for this gift. Throughout it all, remember that this is about the deceased, not about you. Most eulogies are prepared and delivered by people unaccustomed to writing and public speaking. Great oratory and profound insights are not expected and are not even the point of a eulogy. What makes a great eulogy is a heartfelt message of love for the deceased, and stories reminding us of why we all share that love. If you deliver that message in a clear, straightforward manner, you will have succeeded.