Afterthoughts

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Writing a Eulogy

Celebrities make eulogies look easy, don’t they. There’s Colin Farrell, surprising us all with a reading that somehow captured the quintessential essence of Elizabeth Taylor. We saw Costner delivering an emotional, personal tribute to Whitney Houston. There’s Oprah Winfrey, eulogising the history-changing life led by Rosa Parks, the American civil rights activist. And who among us hasn’t googled John Cleese, dropping the F-bomb at Graham Chapman’s funeral?

Each and every time, the camera cuts away to an enthralled congregation. The burden of unbearable sadness has been relieved a little, their spirits lifted by the pathos and ‘patter’ of a skilled speechmaker. But it’s different when it’s your turn. It’s harder when it’s you. And if someone has died unexpectedly, ‘writing a few words’ might feel like an insurmountable challenge.

If you’re not Billy Crystal, for example, is it ever right to choose an outrageous anecdote that makes sense to you but might offend someone, if not everyone, in the audience? Very few of us have the support of a professional speechwriting team. But there’s a lot we can learn from celebrities and the way they create, and deliver, a eulogy. Let’s see how.

GIVING A READING
Colin Farrell and Elizabeth Taylor – an unusual match. They’d become good friends towards the end of the Hollywood icon’s life. At the funeral, Colin read poetry aloud: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”. This is such a simple way to provide a eulogy.

There are many poems that are almost too poignant – the one made most popular in recent years is WH Auden’s heart-rending “He was my north, my south, my east and west…”, may be hard to get through – but there are others that will be suitable for almost any funeral:

  • Mary Frye, “Do not stand at my grave and weep…”
  • David Harkins, “She is gone (He is gone)…”
  • Christina Rosetti, “When I come to the end of the road…”

REMEMBERING ACHIEVEMENTS
You don’t need a degree in English or to be an experienced, celebrity speaker to deliver ‘rhetoric’ that speaks volumes, the way Oprah Winfrey did. She talked about Rosa Park’s achievements, and the impact they’d had on her life and other people’s lives.

Simply by writing down a timeline of the person’s life, you can do this too. Talking through someone’s commitment to a growing family, or notable achievements in a person’s career is a meaningful way to encapsulate their lives. It’s a ‘framework’, too, that – if you’re unsure about speaking in public – can help you to deliver your comments without too much anxiety.

MAKING A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Kevin Costner’s connection to Whitney Houston was, for most people, their work on the blockbuster, ‘Bodyguard’. But in his moving eulogy, Costner also talked about their shared love of gospel music, and music in general.

What did you share with the person who died, that might be a surprise for your audience? Very simply, is there a fond memory you’d like to share that would strike a chord?

USING HUMOUR (APPROPRIATELY)
Humour is not appropriate for every funeral. But if you’re sure about it, then, with care, a light-hearted approach can be incredibly powerful – lifting people’s spirits, helping them to remember a person with great fondness. However, there are some general rules.

Not everyone will appreciate a bawdy reference and (unless you are John Cleese or the person had a well-known, well-appreciated reputation for strong language), it’s unlikely that a eulogy laden with swear words will go down well. Don’t crack jokes for humour’s sake. You might think it’s a coping strategy for giving a speech without breaking down, and it’s good to remember an occasion like this positively, but sometimes? Sometimes it’s just the wrong tone completely.

FINALLY…
Practice. Celebrities learn their lines by reading and repeating them out loud, over and over again – that’s how they deliver their speeches so professionally. It is incredibly rare to find someone who can give an ‘off the cuff’ speech at an event like this and, for the most part, that performance talent is the reason why a person is a well-known person.

When it comes to remembering someone fondly, it’s best to go with your instincts. Funerals are a whirl of emotions. There is no right or wrong way to write and give a eulogy, but we hope these ideas might have helped. As long as what you’re saying comes from the heart, it will be perfect.