Writing and Presenting a Eulogy

So you’ve been asked to present a eulogy or you feel you just want to. It’s quite a responsibility, to say just the right thing in just the right way. If you were close to the deceased, it’s that much more difficult, given the emotional ties. The purpose of this article is to familiarize you with the process and provide pointers for writing and presenting the eulogy.

What is a Eulogy?

A eulogy is a short piece of writing used to acknowledge a person who has died and to remember them in a special way. These tributes to the deceased are typically read at funerals. They provide information about the person, usually in a positive light, and help bring closure to the process of death and dying. The presentation is usually about three minutes long and does not have to be depressing. In fact, it should not be depressing. This isn’t a persuasive speech, you’re not selling anything here. Don’t expect to wipe away everyone’s tears – respect the fact that the departed will be missed, no matter how eloquent your eulogy is.

What a Eulogy is Not

A eulogy is not a poem. That’s an elegy. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray is an example of such a lament, or mournful poem. Such lines as “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day” are better inscribed on tombstones that related verbally to an audience. This is a funeral, not a coffeehouse poetry slam.

Example Eulogies

Look over these examples to get an idea what a eulogy can be. Just because Princess Diana and Chet Atkins were celebrities, doesn’t mean the basic structure of their eulogies won’t apply in your situation. Just read them over and get a feel for the ground covered by the writer.

Excerpt from Earl Charles Spencer’s eulogy for Princess Diana

I stand before you today the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock. We are all united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so. For such was her extraordinary appeal that the tens of millions of people taking part in this service all over the world via television and radio who never actually met her, feel that they too lost someone close to them in the early hours of Sunday morning. It is a more remarkable tribute to Diana than I can ever hope to offer her today.

Excerpt from Garrison Keillor’s eulogy for Chet Atkins

He had a natural reserve to him, but when he admired people, he went all out to tell them about it. And because there was no deception in him, his praise meant more than just about anything else. If Chet was a fan of yours, you never needed another one…He was not a saint…He liked synthesizers more than he maybe ought to have. He sometimes kicked the golf ball to improve his lie.

There are no hard and fast rules governing the writing and presentation of the eulogy. Take for instance this anonymous piece that has been floating around cyberspace for a few years. It’s a eulogy for Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel and all its spin-offs. It was ‘written’ by one of the characters in his book!

Eulogies Under Duress

To my mind, presenting a eulogy for someone who died a violent or unexpected death is a worst-case scenario. What do you say, “It’s all part of God’s plan?” Courtney Love certainly didn’t believe this, which she made plain in her eulogy for Kurt Cobain. Her prerecorded reading of Cobain’s suicide note, along with her own comments, was played for the crowd that had gathered for a memorial service in Seattle five days after Cobain died (April 10, 1994).

Here’s a very powerful example of how to find good and positive things to say in the event of an unexpected and shocking death:

Excerpt from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X

Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place – Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes – extinguished now, and gone from us forever. For Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought – his home of homes, where his heart was, and where his people are – and it is, therefore, most fitting that we meet once again – in Harlem – to share these last moments with him.

In Summary

Regardless of how the departed met their demise, we want to present the deceased in a positive way, respectfully acknowledge his or her contributions, and consider the audience. In closing, we hope this article will help you through a difficult time. Many have been down the same path before you. You’ll make it too.