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Ten Steps to a Better Eulogy

Posted by joeabbott on April 23, 2013

Yes, here in a blog containing trivial matters on cats, chickens, hiking, video games, and the occasional bit of woodworking or home construction project, I’m including a post on writing a better eulogy. While “why not” might suffice as an appropriate response to “why on earth are you writing about that”, the more specific answer is that someone had loaned me an old newspaper article on it, I thought it rather good, and it’s now time to return it; this will be my way of “remembering” it.

So here, in full, is a piece that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sunday, April 24, 2005 by Susan Barbieri. Regrettably, without permission.

Open strongly.

Here’s how TV writer Alan Zweibel opened his comments on Gilda Radner: “About 14 years ago I was hiding behind a potted plant and this girl asked if I would help her be a parakeet.” As we say in journalism, that’s a great “lead”.

Get inside the loss.

Then transcend it and consider how the person’s absence affected your life. “We all want to know that our presence here made a different,” author Cyrus Copeland said.

Be honest.

When “Dream Team” Olympic hockey captain Mike Eruzione eulogized Herb Brooks, he recalled how phone conversations with Brooks were so one-sided that Eruzione could put the phone down, make a sandwich and return without being missed. Stories like this are endearing even as they reveal what some might consider personality flaws.

Decide on boundaries.

If the person died in an unseemly manner, decide whether to address that. Courtney Love, for instance, read Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. “I don’t know that most people can get away with that, and I’m not sure she did,” Copeland said. “But, she reads his suicide note with this kind of concurrent river of love and anger. Love because she loved him, anger at being left behind.”

Be specific.

Play reporter. Interview other family members and list remembrances to share. “If a eulogy for Aunt Mary can easily be confused with the eulogy for Aunt Josephine, you’ve done your audience a bit of a disservice and you might as well have the mailman deliver it,” Copeland said.

Tell the stories.

Think of the big moments that marked the narrative arc of his or her life as well as the small telling moments. At the funeral of former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, son Mike told a story from his father’s 1958 campaign. On Halloween, 10-year-old Mike retaliated for the many vandalized DFL lawn signs he saw by swiping GOP signs. Dad was not pleased. “Governor and son replaced every one of those lawn signs,“ Freeman said.

Read it aloud.

Say the words out load before you deliver them to feel that you “own” them and can be comfortable with them.

Don’t ramble.

Time yourself when you do the practice reading. Keep it between 5 and 10 minutes.

Take a written copy along.

That way, if you break down, and can’t continue, you can hand it off to someone else to finish.

Close with panache.

Give the audience words to remember this person by, and send the deceased off with “a powerful feeling,” Copeland said. When James Woods eulogized Bette Davis, he closed with, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy eternity.”

I believe the Cyrus Copeland frequently quoted above is featured in this piece, found by a simple web search. The article linked is another good reference.

And that’s it, a few notes for saying a better good-bye. Hope neither of us needs this soon or often.

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One Response to “Ten Steps to a Better Eulogy”

  1. Momma said

    I’m so glad you posted this, joe. When “the time comes”, one just stares at the blank paper for a while, not knowing where to start, and sometimes, when to stop! One of my favorite memories is when I did a eulogy for Grams and I was really startled at the response to my telling how Uncle Stanley came to her home to recuperate from an operation. And stayed for the next 23 years! Lots of laughter and it felt good. Momma

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