When a loved one, family member, or close friend passes away, you may not feel as though you’re in the best state of mind to give an important speech. Public speaking can be scary under the best circumstances. During a difficult time, you may find it overwhelming to think about the fundamentals of performance, things like building a connection with your audience and making eye contact. Faced with a blank page, many people struggle to conjure favorite memories or form coherent thoughts. You might even be afraid that you won’t be able to finish your speech without crying.
In spite of these obstacles, we would argue that eulogy writing can serve as a useful tool to help you get through the memorial service and funeral with a sense of purpose. Writing a eulogy is an honor, and focusing on that job can be a good way to record some of your favorite memories while they remain fresh in your mind. As someone close to the deceased, you have the unique opportunity to develop a speech that emphasizes your favorite aspects of your subject.
More importantly, eulogists have the opportunity to provide comfort to others. Toastmasters International, a nonprofit focused on public speaking, offers this reminder: “At many funerals, the religious leader presiding over the service is the person giving the eulogy, yet too often it’s painfully apparent that this person, though well-intentioned, did not know the deceased well—or at all.” Unfortunately, this common scenario can be distracting and disappointing to the family and friends. Rather than bringing people together, an unfamiliar eulogist can leave everyone feeling isolated. When you deliver a meaningful eulogy, you provide mourners with new insights about the person they love. Not only do you have the ability to nurture others by sharing stories, but you may also influence the way that your loved one is remembered.
Forget about your speech-writing nerves. The upsides of a great eulogy should outweigh your fears. To make things as easy as possible, use this step-by-step guide to create the best eulogy possible.
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Use your job as a eulogist as an excuse to collect important stories. Think of yourself as an archivist, tasked with creating the official library of stories about the person you love. Call relatives and friends, explain what you’re doing, and ask whether they have any stories to share.
Here’s a list of some questions you can ask:
What did [name of deceased] look like when you first met [him/her]?
What types of things did [he/she] find funny?
What qualities did [name of deceased] value in other people?
How did [name of deceased] impact [his/her] community?
What’s one story [name of deceased] wouldn’t want you to tell me?
What did you admire about [him/her]?
What were [his/her] worst habits?
What surprised you about [him/her]?
What are your favorite memories together?
Is there any small detail that you don’t want to forget about [him/her]?
In addition to asking questions, you can also build a biographical sketch of the person’s life, including major milestones. You may also want to jot down the names of the person’s relatives, including those predeceased family members that might otherwise go unmentioned. Be sure to add your own stories to the archive, as well.
Step Two: Identify Themes
Once you have created an archive of stories, make it into a shareable document. You’ll likely want to give a small group of close family and friends access to the information you’ve gathered. Next, make a copy of the document—title it “Eulogy Draft”—to house an outline for your eulogy.
After reading through all the stories, try to highlight 1-3 stories about a particular theme. Remember, the theme should reflect the personality of the deceased. You may select the theme based on common qualities that your interviewees identified. On the other hand, you could simply pick stories that touched your heart the most. Either way, you’ll need to narrow down your focus. A eulogy should be brief, only 5-10 minutes in length.
Be sure that you don’t choose stories given to you by anyone who has been selected to give a speech at the memorial or funeral service. Try to keep the lineup of speakers in mind and complement their points of view without repetition.
As an example of a possible theme, you might select humor as the central thread for your uncle’s eulogy. In your speech, you might tell stories about your uncle’s sense of humor: one about the silly pranks he pulled, one about the way he used humor in his career, and one about your own funniest memory with him. Try to include stories from different parts of the person’s life to create a more well-rounded portrait. If you don’t have enough stories to round out a particular theme, try to brainstorm a few more examples from your own experiences.
Once you’ve highlighted 2-3 stories, you can start building an outline. To do so, remove the unused stories from the draft document. Then, add space for an introduction and conclusion. Place the anecdotes in a logical order; but, remember, it doesn’t need to be chronological order.
Step Three: Draft Your Introduction and Conclusion
Begin your eulogy by introducing yourself and explaining your relationship to the deceased. You may also want to come up with a creative opening line, such as a quote or a detail that allows the audience to understand more about your dynamic together. Next, provide a bit of information about the deceased, including a summary of his or her accomplishments or a brief biographical account.
After you finish the introduction, you can create a first draft of your conclusion. Usually, the conclusion of a eulogy contains the most emotional content of the speech. You might want to say what you’ll miss most about the person. Include any important expressions of gratitude for caretakers, family members, or other helpful people. It’s common to end a eulogy with a statement directly to the deceased person—”Jill, we’ll try to take care of each other”—but this is optional.
Don’t worry about getting a perfect introduction and conclusion the first time through. You will likely need to revise these sections after completing the bulk of your eulogy.
Step Four: Rewrite the Stories in Your Own Words
You’ve already chosen 2-3 stories that fit a theme. Now, rewrite the stories in your own words. You should attribute them properly, saying something like, “Andrew’s best friend Christopher told me about a time when…”
Even though this is an emotional time for you, think of combining the best stories in one eulogy as stitching together a blanket that will keep all of the mourners warm. By including the community’s stories, as well as your own, you build a stronger, warmer blanket than you would be able to without help. Once you’ve finished the second draft, you can share a copy of your eulogy with the original storytellers to make sure that you’ve gotten all the details correct.
Step Five: Make Revisions
A good eulogy doesn’t live on the page. Read the eulogy aloud to yourself to see how it sounds. Your grammar and spelling doesn’t have to be perfect, but you do need to be able to pronounce all the words you use. As you practice your speech, continue correcting the text to make it better.
In particular, you may want to state the theme directly or add a few sentences to the conclusion to explain why you chose the stories you did. Make sure you have clear transitions between the stories, so the audience can follow any jumps in time. Once you have a strong second draft, record yourself reading it and watch the recording. Alternatively, you can ask someone else to listen to your speech and give you feedback.
Step Six: Be Prepared
Assume that giving the eulogy will be a difficult task. Although there’s no wrong way to do it, you can take precautions to make sure that you have the tools on hand to make yourself more comfortable. For example, you’ll probably want to have a glass of water and a handkerchief ready. If you start to cry, this will allow you to take a break or wipe your nose. Take deep breaths before and during the speech, whenever you feel you need to pause. You may even want to ask the funeral director for tips or strategies. Take advantage of his or her professional knowledge to make your own life easier.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed, try to remember that you are not just sharing your own stories. Other people have entrusted you to share their stories, too. This idea can help you get back on track if you become distracted. Think of the metaphorical blanket of stories that you are stitching together, and remember that someone in the audience is looking forward to hearing his or her own special story in your speech. That may give you the strength to continue if you have any trouble.
No matter how the speech goes, your loved one probably would have been honored and thankful that you agreed to deliver the eulogy.
Step Seven: Take advice from those who have done it before
According to Dusan Stanar, CEO of VSS Monitoring. “The best way to write a eulogy is to start by writing down some stories or favorite memories about the person. Just make notes about things you know about them. As you look at your list, think of stories/memories that go with the notes and expand on them. If you didn’t know the person well, or for very long, talk to family members or friends and ask them to tell you stories”
According to Peter Schoeman, Founder of The Dog Adventure ” Great eulogies do more than present factual lists and timelines; great eulogies tell stories. They paint a picture with words that brings the recently departed by to life, at least mentally, for the audience. Be honest, be truthful, be detailed, and most of all, be personal if the departed is someone you knew”
According to Julien Raby,CEO of Thermo Gears ” You can always start by introducing yourself and expressing your gratitude to everyone who came. Then, you can share a story or two about your fondest memories with the deceased. After that, you can wrap it up with a quote or a bible verse to end things on a hopeful note”
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.