I just returned from NYC for the third time in a month. My uncle Bob was the only real uncle I ever had, and he died at the ripe old age of 98. Well, at least we think that’s how old he was. Unlike women, who typically take years off their lives when reporting their age, on each of his birthdays my uncle added a couple of years. Perhaps this was his way of telling us he was immortal, or maybe he wanted to garner more love, respect, and sympathy. We will never know.
As the family writer, I offered to write his eulogy, not always an easy task when you are the only one eulogizing someone who has lived for so long. As his only next of kin, I wanted to get it right. When writing eulogies, my motto is to be short and sweet, focus mainly on all the good attributes, who the person left behind, and their influence on their loved ones’ lives. For some people, writing a eulogy might seem like an overwhelming assignment, but writers typically welcome any golden opportunity to create. In fact, often we are known to do our best work in the midst of intense emotional upheaval. The words just seem to pour out on the page. I see it as an honor. However, it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to write a eulogy. The most important thing is to write from the heart or a deep place inside the self.
If someone has lived as many years as uncle Bob, it would be impossible to include all his life stories. When preparing my eulogy, I pretended I was speaking to an audience that did not really know him (actually a reality; he was a difficult person to get to know—very private). He had been married for 64 years, but unfortunately his wife, Silva, 89 herself, has severe dementia so could not serve as an historian. All she could repeat over and over was, “I miss Bob so much; what will I do now? Who will take care of me?” Silva’s pain was a sad situation for me to witness.
To organize my eulogy, before doing the actual writing, I decided to write a little summary about Bob’s life. In point form, I wrote the highlights of his life—when he emigrated to America, who he was with, what he did when he arrived, who was important to him, his long marriage; his influence on my life and my family’s life. As with any form of writing, when eulogizing, the more the writer shares anecdotes and images, the more compelling the writing. Just to say the person was generous is not enough. It is more helpful to share examples of how the person was generous. “Show don’t tell,” is something we can never do enough of. When possible, it is also amusing to add in a humorous story; everyone needs comic relief during a funeral service.
One common error in writing a eulogy is the person/writer focuses on themselves, rather than on the deceased. Of course, the eulogy is presented from the writer’s point of view, but it is not about the writer. Some of the most touching eulogies share simple thoughts, like, “What I will miss most are the weekly phone calls,” or “What I will miss most is the special dinner he/she prepared” or “their smile.”
For the past ten years, I have had a book sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust, but as I approach my 60th birthday, I think I will be referring to it more and more. Although I am sure there are many similar books now available, this one is called, Condolences & Eulogies: Finding the perfect words by Bettyanne Gillette. Googling on the Internet can offer some other wonderful tips.
There are some great websites that offer other ideas on writing eulogies. Such as:
Here are some tips I have accumulated over the years:
• identify yourself
• be positive
• decide on the eulogy’s tone
• consider the attendees
• focus on key ideas and events / life history / achievements
• offer specific anecdotes and favorite memories
• be succinct and interesting
• incorporate humor, if applicable
• finish on a positive note
• practice reading to someone you trust