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How to Write a Eulogy

Writing and delivering a eulogy is one of the few opportunities we have in life to stand up and tell people what someone has meant to us. Sometimes we say these things to each other privately, but most of us would agree that if we do it all, we don't do it often enough. Here are some tips which I put together to help you get started.

Importance of a Eulogy

A eulogy is a public tribute. It's a chance to explore why this person's life made a difference in the world. You will accomplish that simply by summing up why he or she made a difference to you.

When we attend a memorial service, we share with others the experience of paying our respects, honoring someone's life, and saying goodbye. The thoughts and feelings you convey in your eulogy will bring this individual's memory to life. And in those stories you recount, those anecdotes which characterize this individual, you will help that person's memory live on in the hearts of everyone present.

Tips for Writing a Eulogy
  • Keep it simple. You don't need to include every detail about someone's life, so try to stay focused on a few main points. List the first qualities about this person that come to mind-kindness, humor, loved animals. Think about what this person enjoyed most during his or her life-music, fishing, tennis. Jot down key words.
  • Don't worry about the language, just write down what you're thinking, exactly the way you would say it. You might even want to use a tape recorder to get the thoughts flowing more easily.
  • Try to imagine yourself sitting across from your best friend and telling him or her why this person was important to you.
  • Think about how this person's life made a difference to you. Since mine was about my father, I came from the perspective of what he meant to me as a daughter, but ultimately it got me thinking beyond our relationship and about other contributions he made.
  • Think about the most memorable things this person did or said, conversations you had, lessons you learned, things you did together, why your life was different/better for having known this person.
  • Ask friends and family for stories and write them down.
  • Write long hand and let your mind wander.
  • You want to get your thoughts and feelings onto the page in whatever shape they take: words, phrases, parts of a story. Don't worry about what it sounds like, or if it seems silly or unimportant, sometimes an important thought is just around the corner and you may need to loosen up your thoughts to really hit on some event or little phrase that will capture the essence of this person.
  • Take all this information and craft a beginning (when you first met, the early days), middle (things you did together, funny experiences) and ending which summarizes everything you've talked about (what you'll remember most about this person, what you'll miss).
  • You might want to think about ending with a favorite quotation or saying.
Tips for Delivering the Eulogy
  • Practice reading what you've written a few times just to get comfortable with how it sounds. You may decide to add or subtract a few lines after hearing it out loud.
  • Make sure the final document is easy to read. Pick a type face that you're comfortable with and print it out in large, double-spaced type.
  • Take a drink of water before you start and bring some tissues up there with you.
  • You don't have to look at anyone. You don't have to look up at all if staying focused on the page helps you to concentrate.
  • Keep in mind your emotional state and just speak from the heart. Don't worry if you break down.
  • Everyone out there is proud of you for just attempting to do this.
  • Take a deep breath and take you're time. You're going to do just fine.
Why You'll Be Glad You Did It

The act of writing everything down really helped me to say goodbye to my father. It was difficult to recount happy times and think about how much I'm going to miss him, but in the end it was a kind of catharsis to remember how much joy we shared together. Every time I remembered something funny he said, or something that was quintessential "my dad", I wrote it down. As difficult as it was to stand up and speak on the day his funeral, I'm glad I did it. I felt like he was there listening, like he was laughing in all the right places and crying along with the rest of us. It brought him back to me, whole and healthy, on that very important day.

Writing also helped me to organize my thoughts. It was a tool which has helped me deal with my grief. So even if you cry and break down in the middle of your delivery, whether you finish or not, the important thing is the effort. Remember, everyone attending the funeral is there to support you.

If, when the day comes, you don't feel up to delivering the eulogy, don't worry about it - you've still helped to heal yourself by the act of writing down your feelings. The very process of thinking through this person's life and it's impact on you has already illuminated important issues which will help you get through the grieving process. Even if you're not up to speaking on the day of the service, you may want to have someone else read what you've written, or you may only want to cherish the words you've put down which sum up how much this person's life meant to you. Either way, you'll be glad you put your feelings into words.

A Few Samples

"Eulogy for my Dad"

February 9, 1999

We spend a lot of time in life looking for our purpose, our reason for being here. We hope at the end of our lives we'll come to know that purpose and have the chance to make some contribution about which we can say with pride . . . this really mattered to me and I did it well. My father was one of the lucky ones. As a psychiatrist, he found his purpose in being to talk with people and help them work through their problems, a process which enabled them to change their lives for the better . . . and that gift came to define his life.

One patient wrote to us during my father's illness . . . "He had a tremendous love for helping others and his dedication to our work together has had long lasting effects and continues to help me to this day to meet new challenges . . . I think of him with admiration for his talent and I am very grateful for the life he helped me to find . . . " That letter would have made him very proud.

He believed in the power of emotion . . . he knew that if we explore our feelings we can be inspired to grow and to heal. This gave him a great appreciation for all kinds of creative expressions of emotion. He collected artwork, he went to the theater, he listened to all kinds of music, he loved comedy - in his CD collection he had everything from Mozart to Mel Brooks. He always wanted to see and feel the beauty or the sorrow or the love. He always wanted to be challenged, to be moved.

And it became his life's work to challenge and guide others in their efforts to achieve a more peaceful mind . . . With compassion and empathy, that included friends and family . . . If you were upset or frustrated about some problem . . . and you needed to talk - he was there. My brother and sister might agree that after my father had listened to people in his office all day, sometimes it was difficult to get him to him to stop talking, but we knew that was his way of trying to help.

We used to joke about that a lot, that when given the opportunity - he loved to talk . . . about his life, your life, about politics, about what was going on in the world. He was always interested in what was going on around him and driven to take action - so he would offer advice, write to editors of newspapers . . . become involved, try to make a difference where he could. And certainly to enjoy himself whenever he could . . . So he took up gardening, he started a wine cellar, played tennis, taught his kids how to play ping pong and bought a canoe so he could spend weekends paddling around Lake Tiarati with my mother.

Even though he had a sense of adventure for trying new things, there was one word I heard a lot growing up . . . "prudent", and what we were planning to do either was or was not "prudent". The trick we learned was that you never wanted to be on the wrong side of what dad thought was prudent . . . Ultimately, my father was a cautious man with an adventurous side so his credo to his children was summed up in his words to me when I graduated from college . . . be happy, prosper but whatever you do, don't let your health insurance lapse. Do that and all will be well, but most importantly do what you love . . .

My mother has told us it's a good thing my father loved what he did and had the opportunity to do it . . . because apparently as a college student he didn't make it through many of his less than inspiring summer jobs . . . For example, one summer he worked in a post office and the supervisor discovered that to heighten the challenge of sorting mail, my father had taken to doing it blindfolded . . . so that job didn't last too long. He always had his own way of doing things. And fortunately, for him and for us . . . he realized early on that it was best for him to simply work for himself. With that goal in mind, he worked his way through medical school.

Becoming a doctor gave him the independence and the resources to indulge in one thing he really loved to do - to travel and to share those trips with his family. While my sister and brother and I were children, we traveled through Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean . . . and that instilled in all of us a sense of curiosity about the world and a desire to explore it. I have pictures of my father and mother in Egypt riding up to the pyramids on camels, sitting in the stadium of a bullfighting ring in Portugal and standing on the deck of the Leonardo de Vinci as she left New York harbor bound for Italy.

Many of those trips were cruises . . . he really liked travelling by boat and being out in the middle of the ocean. As a young physician, he took a job as a ship's doctor so he could travel and get paid at the same time. It was the perfect opportunity . . . the only thing missing . . . was my mother. Forty years ago when they started dating he wrote to her from the deck of the Santa Paula on his way to Cuba . . . where they would later take their first trip as a married couple. He was 28 years old.

"We're a few days out of New York, the sea is calm - turquoise blue with shimmering, sunlit white caps trailing along in the ship's wake. The breeze is cool and strong, the sun is hot and the sky is a clear bright blue and faint purple - I wish you were here. It's good sometimes to have reason to put your feelings on paper. Makes you more aware of their depth, as you search for the words to express them. I've always enjoyed feeling the breeze in my face - being able to look and look and all you can see is where the sun meets the sky. And so you think of the heights to the sky and the depth of the ocean and you compare its magnitude with you and your life and those around you - especially at night - you almost get the feelings of the poets . . . "

He made a successful career out of putting things in their proper perspective and as I look back over his life and his accomplishments I know I'm grateful to have had him as a father. And we're all proud to be able to say about him and his life's work . . . that he found something that really mattered to him and he did it well.

When we were kids, my dad bought us all poetry books; I'd like to close with a few lines from an Emerson poem called Goodbye.

O, when I am safe in my sylvan home,
I tread on the pride of Greece and Rome;
And when I am stretched beneath the pines,
Where the evening star so holy shines,
I laugh at the lore and the pride of man,
At the sophist schools, and the learned clan;
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
When man in the bush with God may meet?

Back to "A Few Samples"

Funeral oration by 9th Earl Spencer
September 6, 1997

Web posted at: 9:42 a.m. EDT (1342 GMT)

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.

Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity, a standard-bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a truly British girl who transcended nationality, someone with a natural nobility who was classless, who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.

Today is our chance to say "thank you" for the way you brightened our lives, even though God granted you but half a life. We will all feel cheated that you were taken from us so young and yet we must learn to be grateful that you came along at all.

Only now you are gone do we truly appreciate what we are now without and we want you to know that life without you is very, very difficult.

We have all despaired at our loss over the past week and only the strength of the message you gave us through your years of giving has afforded us the strength to move forward.

There is a temptation to rush to canonize your memory. There is no need to do so. You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities not to need to be seen as a saint. Indeed to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being, your wonderfully mischievous sense of humor with the laugh that bent you double, your joy for life transmitted wherever you took your smile, and the sparkle in those unforgettable eyes, your boundless energy which you could barely contain.

But your greatest gift was your intuition, and it was a gift you used wisely. This is what underpinned all your wonderful attributes. And if we look to analyze what it was about you that had such a wide appeal, we find it in your instinctive feel for what was really important in all our lives.

Without your God-given sensitivity, we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of AIDS and HIV sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of land mines. Diana explained to me once that it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.

And here we come to another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom.

The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability, whilst admiring her for her honesty. The last time I saw Diana was on July the first, her birthday, in London, when typically she was not taking time to celebrate her special day with friends but was guest of honor at a charity fund-raising evening.

She sparkled of course, but I would rather cherish the days I spent with her in March when she came to visit me and my children in our home in South Africa. I am proud of the fact that apart from when she was on public display meeting President Mandela, we managed to contrive to stop the ever-present paparazzi from getting a single picture of her.

That meant a lot to her.

These are days I will always treasure. It was as if we'd been transported back to our childhood, when we spent such an enormous amount of time together, the two youngest in the family.

Fundamentally she hadn't changed at all from the big sister who mothered me as a baby, fought with me at school and endured those long train journeys between our parents' homes with me at weekends. It is a tribute to her level-headedness and strength that despite the most bizarre life imaginable after her childhood, she remained intact, true to herself.

There is no doubt that she was looking for a new direction in her life at this time. She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment she received at the hands of the newspapers.

I don't think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own, and only, explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum.

It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest is this; that a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.

She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate. And I do this here, Diana, on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.

Beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned.

We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born, and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role. But we, like you, recognize the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible, to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead. I know you would have expected nothing less from us.

William and Harry, we all care desperately for you today. We are all chewed up with sadness at the loss of a woman who wasn't even our mother. How great your suffering is we cannot even imagine.

I would like to end by thanking God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time; for taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had so much joy in her private life.

Above all, we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister: the unique the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana, whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds.

Back to "A Few Samples"

An Essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's essay on Thoreau is a mix of biography, eulogy, and personal criticism. It shows that Emerson believed Thoreau capable of far greater accomplishments than he achieved in his life. When Thoreau died in 1862, Emerson was a national figure, the Great American Philosopher. Thoreau was a minor, local personality. These excerpts from Emerson's funeral oration (expanded and printed later in The Atlantic Monthly) give his views, positive and negative, of this one-time disciple who has now eclipsed him in stature.

He graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. [After a brief stint manufacturing pencils and inventing a better pencil, he decided] that he should never make another pencil. "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once." He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of techinical and textual science.

He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.

He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.

There was somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.

He was a speaker and actor of the truth, born such, and was ever running into dramatic situations from this cause. ... In 1845 he built himself a small framed house on the shores of Walden Pond, and lived there two years alone, a life of labor and study. This action was quite native and fit for him.

In 1847, not approving some uses to which the public expenditure was applied, he refused to pay his town tax, and was put in jail. A friend paid the tax for him, and he was released. The like annoyance was threatened the next year. But as his friends paid the tax, notwithstanding his protest, I believe he ceased to resist.

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversion from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt. He listened impatiently to news or bonmotsgleaned from London circles; and though he tried to be civil, these anecdotes fatigued him. The men were all imitating each other, and on a small mould. Why can they not live as far apart as possible and each be a man by himself?

His robust common sense, armed with stout hands, keen perceptions and strong will, cannot yet account for the superiority which shone in his simple and hidden life. I must add the cardinal fact, that there was an excellent wisdom in him, proper to a rare class of men, which showed him the material world as a means and symbol. This discovery, which sometimes yields to poets a certain casual and interrupted light, serving for the ornament of their writing, was in him an unsleeping insight; and whatever faults or obstructions of temperament might cloud it, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.

He understood the matter in hand at a glance, and saw the limitations and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed from such terrible eyes. I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility converted in a moment to the belief that this man was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.

Mr. Thoreau dedicated his genius with such entire love to the fields, hills and waters of his native town, that he made them known and interesting to all reading Americans, and to people over the sea.

It was a pleasure and a priviledge to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him.

His interest in the flower or the bird lay very deep in his mind, was connected with Nature, -- and the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him. ... His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with a microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.

His poetry might be good or bad; he no doubt wanted a lyric facility and technical skill, but he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception. ... His own verses are often rude and defective. The gold does not yet run pure, is drossy and crude. The thyme and marjoram are not yet honey. But if he want lyric fineness and technical merits, if he have not the poetic temperatment, he never lacks the causal thought, showing that his genius was better than his talent.

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party. Pounding beans is good to the end of empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans?

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

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