People often ask me how I write a good eulogy for someone who has died, something that reflects the essence of that person while also bringing comfort, solace and positivity to those present to say farewell.
I can safely say that sometimes it’s easier than others! I have led many and diverse services to celebrate lives; on one such occasion, for a World War 2 veteran and hero who achieved so much in his life it was almost impossible to fit everything important into one ten minute tribute! On the other hand and fortunately, less often, I have written life stories about people who haven’t done much at all and that brings with it different challenges.
What I do in the first instance is to use my own questionnaire which I regularly update with the benefit of new experiences; I get the basics down and as I chat with the family, I get a feel for what they want. The wishes of the family are paramount but I am often asked for guidance which I am very happy to give to ensure a seamless service. As we talk about the person who has died, different anecdotes and long-forgotten facts come out which go on to prompt other thoughts. I swiftly note these words down and then I go on to pull them together to paint the picture for the farewell service. If I had to identify two key skills necessary at this stage, I would say they are keen listening and the ability to empathise with the bereaved.
It’s not my practice simply to rattle off a chronological history of somebody’s life, born here…., went to school there…, without intertwining these facts with some thought-provoking and interesting experiences unique to that person. For example, I once wrote a service where the deceased had, as a young girl, attended a convent school and didn’t like some of the nuns. She once jumped out of a window to escape the confines of the convent, landing on a poor unfortunate nun who was passing at the time. Luckily no one was hurt and the congregation enjoyed the anecdote!
Sometimes it can be quite easy to slip into describing another member of the deceased’s family, perhaps a parent, if they have led an exceptional life and of course this is something generally to be handled with care. An example of this happened to me when the father of the lady who had died was a successful and well-known scientist who had discovered something life-changing for the whole world. His daughter had led a very quiet and uneventful life in comparison.
In services where there is sparse information to work with or perhaps little is known of the deceased, I will sometimes use the year of their birth or perhaps the era to enhance the tribute. In one eulogy I wrote some years ago, the lady (who was in fact my grandmother) could recall the day her parents were talking in hushed tones about the tragedy that was the sinking of the Titanic. She would have been 11 years old then. The assembled mourners were completely entranced. ‘My Heart will Go On’, the soundtrack for the film ‘Titanic’, proved a perfect fit for the reflection music.
It can sometimes happen that the family members organising the service didn’t have a great relationship with the deceased. This can also cause some difficulties which have to be managed in a sensitive way. Often music and readings can be used to compensate for the lack of positivity from other members of the family.
There is no doubt that this profession is the most rewarding of my whole life and I have had many roles along the way. Writing the right tribute to light up alongside a life story, whether well lived or not, is often a challenge but always a privilege.