I wish I’d spoken at my father’s funeral

Being able to express yourself publicly at important ceremonies and celebrations – funerals, weddings, christenings and birthdays – is one of the greatest gifts.

My father died 10 years ago. I was going to speak at his funeral. But when we arrived at the church all I could see were the distinguished, CEO-looking men in the audience (my father was an international businessman).  I felt intimidated and chose not to speak. That’s something I regret.

I’ll never turn down an invitation to give a eulogy again.

Don’t make the same mistake I made at my father’s funeral. If you’re given an opportunity to speak at a funeral or other family celebration, think of your regret if you don’t express yourself and your love for that person. On one side you’ll have your anxiety urging to stay quiet. On the other, you have your love for that person that that you would like to express publicly. Focus on the love, not the anxiety.

Take the pressure off

Here is some advice for taking the pressure off yourself as you prepare a eulogy or a speech for a family celebration.

1. You don’t have to provide an outline of their entire life.

The best eulogies are a snapshot or series of snapshots of the person’s life.  Comprehensive accounts of a person’s life are best left to written tributes and obituaries.

2. You don’t have to do a ton of research or talk to lots of other people.

Give your own recollections and your own perspective about the person. In a forum thread on giving a eulogy the most repeated advice was to share your personal memories.

3. You don’t have to lie.

Every person has some flaws. Don’t feel you have to avoid them. Be compassionately honest about the person – don’t idealize them. From the eulogy forum thread comes this beautifully written thought:

In the wan light of grief, annoying habits become endearing eccentricities; it feels good to honor the person who really lived, and not some idealized version that never existed.

4. You don’t have to make people laugh.

Moments of levity and humour are fine, and even welcome during a funeral service. However, if humour doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t force it. A trivial detail which people can relate to is often all that is required:

The only thing I remember about my grandmother’s eulogy was the priest describing how he could always tell she was in line for the Eucharist, because he could hear the tinkling of the armful of bracelets she perpetually wore. It was such a wonderful detail that it captured so much about her — her faith, her style, her position in her church. It was a lovely detail and I remember how much we all smiled and laughed when the priest said it — a bit of joy in the midst of our grief.

5. You don’t have to get it exactly right.

The exact words that you use and whether they come out right or not – is not important. This is not a business presentation. Nobody’s taking notes.

6. You don’t have to have a complicated structure.

Here’s an easy formula for your eulogy or speech. Think of three qualities the person has. Talk about each quality with a short story or anecdote to illustrate each one.

How to get through a eulogy without crying

1. Rehearsal is critical

The hardest thing about giving a eulogy is coping with the effect your words will have on you. Rehearse your speech several times so as to desensitize yourself to your own words. During your first rehearsal, you’ll probably find yourself tearing up. The second time it will happen a little less. The third time, hardly at all. Eventually, you’ll be able to give the speech without emotion welling up.

2. Have two sets of notes

I normally recommend against a full script – but a eulogy is one time where it can be very useful. The beauty (and normally the downside) of a script is that you don’t have to think about what you’re saying. In a normal presentation or speech this is deadly for the audience. But for a eulogy it maybe just what you need to carry you through it. So have brief bullet-point notes that you intend to use. And a fully-scripted set that you can fall-back on, should you get stuck.

3. Have a back-up

Despite the rehearsals you may find that in the highly-charged atmosphere of the funeral, emotion overcomes you. Allow yourself some silence to gather yourself. But arrange a back-up person to read your speech if you find yourself unable to carry on.

Other eulogy advice

In doing research for this post, I found a lot of impersonal rubbish about writing eulogies. But then I stumbled across this gem How to give a Eulogy by Tom Chiarella. I highly recommend reading this moving and insightful essay in full. But here are two of the insights that hit home for me:

1. Think of your audience in concentric circles

Your primary audience are the people most closely related to the deceased:

Standing there on the dais, consider the world as a series of concentric rings of loyalty. The people in the nearest ring, those in the front row, are owed the most. You should speak first to them. And then, in the next measure, to the room itself, which is the next ring, and only then to the physical world outside, the neighborhood, the town, the place, and then, just maybe, to the machinations of life-muffling institutions.

2. Think small

The writing and reading of a eulogy is, above all, the simple and elegant search for small truths. They don’t have to be truths that everyone agrees on, just ones they will recognize. This can be surprisingly hard, to take notice of the smallest, most unpolished details of a life and set them up for us to stare at in the wonder of recognition.

There’s one piece of advice he gives that I disagree with: “You must make them laugh”. I don’t think there’s anything we “must” do in a eulogy. And putting that sort of pressure on yourself could put you off doing it altogether. It’s far more important to give an imperfect eulogy, than not to give a perfect eulogy.

My latest opportunity to speak was at my daughter’s 21st birthday party. I was in charge of preparing vegeterian canapes for fifty, so I didn’t have time to sit down and prepare.

But I knew that in this particular context, what I said was not critical, and given the superb 50 year old brandy that we were toasting her with, unlikely to be remembered.

What was important was the emotion. My words were only a vehicle to express that emotion. And only one member of the audience really mattered – my daughter. And all I had to get across to her was that I loved her.

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