Latest research shows that more of us are willing to talk about death and specifically the type of funeral we’d like to have. If you’re looking to challenge funeral norms, there’s no better place to find inspiration from than modern culture and how funerals in films are depicted.
Here’s our top pics of funeral scenes from films and how they question our preconceptions of the standard funeral:
Four Weddings and a Funeral – the power of poetry
The film that has to be at the top of any funeral in films clip list. There are few in the audience for this rom com blockbuster who didn’t shed a tear when W H Auden’s ‘Stop The Clocks’ poem was read with such depth of feeling by John Hannah:
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.”
In this film a poem is chosen by a mourner to help to describe his pain and grief in losing a loved one, but poetry and prose can also be chosen to convey a message to those you have left behind, to provide comfort or even create levity. Many people also choose to write their own poetry. Just make sure you choose someone with anywhere near the oration skills of John Hannah to read it. You can listen to the poem and others here.
Love Actually and the Big Chill – choose a great song
The next two funerals in films show us how the right song can make or break a funeral. In another of Richard Curtis’s blockbusters, Liam Neeson’s on-screen wife chooses the Bay City Rollers ‘Bye Bye Baby’ to put a smile on her family’s face after losing a loved one before their time and to encourage them to see her funeral as a celebration of her life. In The Big Chill, a film that starts with a funeral, an organ rendition of the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ raises smiles amongst the mourning friends. Songs and music evoke strong emotions and can be a powerful way to personalise a service or convey a message to those attending.
Man on the Moon- film your own eulogy
Bringing to the big screen the life story of comedian Andy Kaufman, played by Jim Carrey, the funeral scene in Man on the Moon shows the message he filmed for his mourners and instructed be played at his funeral. He provides them with advice on how to dwell on his death, what to value in life and leads them all in a sing-along. All of us have the opportunity to be present at our funerals in more ways than one these days, if we have the time to prepare.
What We Did On Our Holidays – channel your inner Viking
As friends and family prepare for his 80th Birthday party, Billy Connolly plays a grandfather who dies suddenly on the beach whilst playing with his grandchildren. Faced with a decision far greater than their years, the children decide to take his funeral into their own hands, rather than letting the adults choose something inappropriate and far too dull, and launch him – Viking style – into the sea. What would happen if your grandchildren got to choose what your funeral was like? What if you felt no obligations to do ‘the right’ thing by family and friends and did it your own way, what would you choose?
The last film on our list is actually a film-length documentary and may not be as familiar as the others. As a compassionate, yet entertaining, look at how different people in America choose to die, mourn and celebrate the lives of those they loved, it’s an absolute must-watch for funeral inspiration. It focuses on non-traditional end of life options such as green burials and ‘living wakes’ and shows two different ways of dispersing ashes – encasing them into a coral reef and shooting them into space on a rocket.
Finding the right words to say at a funeral is a difficult and delicate job. At the same time, it is considered a great honour and privilege to be chosen to deliver a eulogy for someone who died. In this guide to writing a meaningful eulogy, we provide tips and best practices as well as inspirational eulogy examples based on songs and poems that will hopefully be helpful to you. We cover basics and answer questions like “What is a eulogy?”, “How to write a eulogy?”, “What makes a good eulogy?”, “What should be included in a eulogy?” and “What not to say in a eulogy?”
What is a eulogy?
A eulogy is a speech, traditionally given during a funeral or memorial service, that commemorates and praises the person who died. The word has its origin in the Greek language and means “to speak well of”, to celebrate one’s life by praising. A good eulogy captures the essence of a person, what made them special, and honours how they impacted the lives of those around them. A eulogy is about the deceased, but for the people who are grieving them. The words may help with the healing process and give family and friends something to remember their loved one by.
Who does the eulogy and can I decline to give a eulogy?
It is usually a parent, spouse, grown-up child, close family member or best friend who writes the eulogy. Being asked to give a eulogy is a sign of great respect and trust. It is therefore considered an honour and privilege. You’re not obliged to accept, though, if you’re not feeling up for the task. There can be various reasons why you might feel someone else is better suited for the job. Maybe you are feeling too overwhelmed by the loss, maybe you have other commitments that don’t leave you enough time to write a meaningful eulogy, maybe you have a terrible fear of public speaking, or you might have had a recent fall out with the person who died and your relationship wasn’t – for whatever reason – on as good terms as people assume. The point is: If you have been asked to give a eulogy, check with yourself if you want to do it. There’s no shame in declining if you are not comfortable with writing and giving a eulogy for whatever reason.
How long should a eulogy be at a funeral?
You are paying tribute to the life of a person – and you’re doing so in front of a very emotional audience. Therefore, a eulogy speech should be a matter of minutes. Ideally, it will be between 500 to 1000 words long in written form, which averages at 3½ – 7 minutes as a speech. That a great eulogy doesn’t need to be long, was proven by comedian and actor John Cleese at the memorial service for Graham Chapman, known for his role in Monty Python. It only took him two minutes to capture the essence and humour of his close friend brilliantly.
What should be included and what not to say in a eulogy?
A eulogy ideally celebrates the whole person. People don’t become saints just because they die, so there’s no need to put them on a pedestal. However, a eulogy is not an opportunity to set the record straight, get even, air dirty laundry, or reveal family secrets. Don’t say anything that might confuse, shock or offend the audience. At the same time, don’t be afraid to keep it real. We are humans and therefore by nature perfectly imperfect. We all come with flaws and shortcomings – some of which can even be endearing. Every person is unique and the eulogy is allowed to embrace that uniqueness. There is no “one size fits all” approach and the following list is only meant as an inspiration of where to start looking for things to include in your eulogy:
personal and professional milestones and achievements
family life as well as relationships with friends and colleagues
best qualities and character traits
passions and hobbies
anecdotes and funny stories if they feel appropriate
include the unusual and happy or some less well-known aspects of their life or personality
How did they impact or touch your life and the lives of the people around them? In which ways did they inspire you? You could also mention things you learned or inherited from them.
What made them special?
The most important things to keep in mind are: Speak from the heart. As long as you are trying your best to capture the memories your loved one left behind and deliver the eulogy with love and respect, you’re doing great. A good thing to remember as well is that you will never have a more sympathetic and forgiving audience than the one at a funeral.
How to write a eulogy?
It can be helpful to set aside a few hours to talk to family members and close friends and gather ideas and stories. Taking a walk through the home of the person who died may also provide some inspiration.
The next step is to sit down and create a mind map or mood board with everything you’ve collected so far – important names and dates, memories, anecdotes, adjectives that describe your loved one, photos, songs, poems, scriptures or quotes that were of significance to them, special objects, any ideas that have come to mind.
Once you have it all laid out in front of you, you decide on the tone of voice of your eulogy as well as on a theme. The former can but doesn’t have to be serious and solemn or have a lighter, maybe even humorous note. Here’s a great example of a daughter giving a funny and very moving eulogy for her late mother.
To find a theme, you look for a common thread. A eulogy is, in a way, like an argument you want to prove: This is who our loved one was and why they were so important to us, the people gathered here. You do so by telling carefully selected stories that best characterise the person and their life.
A theme can be a question, it can also be a phrase your loved one used to say or something they always did, that they were passionate about or stood for.
If you feel overwhelmed by the material you collected, it might help to ask yourself: If I had to choose three things I want to forever remember about the person who died, which ones would it be and what do they have in common? When even a person who didn’t know the deceased will get a sense of who they were, you’ve done a great job.
As any good story, a eulogy should have a beginning, middle and end. It’s now time to structure and organise the things you’ve chosen to include. One way to approach it is chronologically or in reverse chronological order. Focusing too much on a timeline and facts can get dull and dry very quickly, though. So, be mindful of that. Another way is to structure a eulogy is through the overarching theme or by topic. To start a eulogy it can make sense to briefly introduce yourself and explain who the person that died was to you and maybe how you met. Novelist Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother Steve Jobs is a beautiful example of this. To end a eulogy, you can address the deceased directly and say some final words of “goodbye”. It is also popular to end with a poem, a quote, a few lines of scripture or maybe the lyrics of the favourite song of the deceased.
Finding the right words at a funeral: Important DOs and DON’Ts of a eulogy
Do include the funny and unusual.
– Don’t include too many details or make it too long.
Be honest and keep it real while dwelling on the positive aspects of the deceased one’s life; everyone has something worthy of celebration and praise.
– There’s no space for religious differences, political opinions or old grudges in a eulogy. Nor is this the time and place to show off your fancy vocabulary.
Ask for help, practice and rehearse (giving the speech in front of the mirror or recording yourself with your phone can be useful), and run it by someone you trust.
– Avoid clichés like “We are gathered here today…” – people know where they are and why – and don’t try to provide profound insights or make sense of the death of your loved one by hook or by crook. That doesn’t mean the eulogy can’t be inspiring or uplifting, though.
Do print the eulogy in a big font, have a glass of water nearby and some tissues handy in case you need either, and, if you think it’ll help, ask someone to be your support person either in the audience or to stand in front of the audience with you.
Following our tips and best practices above you should be able to write your own eulogy. Another option is to perhaps read from a famous, poignant poem or song. It does not have to be a traditional poem you can even read the lyrics from a song that means a lot to you or your loved one. We’ve recorded a few for your inspiration, read by the actor Clive Riches: