Every culture has rituals, many of which include some type of public speech. Offering a toast. Introducing a speaker. Delivering a commencement address. Welcoming guests to an art opening, sports event, anniversary or birthday dinner.
From the Greek eulogia, meaning "praise," a eulogy is another example of ceremonial oratory. Although a speech made in honor of a living person is sometimes referred to as a eulogy, most often the word refers to a commemoration of the life of a recently deceased friend, family member, or colleague. Generally given during a funeral, memorial service, or wake, a eulogy is indeed a ceremony of praise.
To give a eulogy is an honor, a trust, yet many of us approach its preparation and delivery with trepidation. How do you sum up a person's life in three or five or ten minutes? How do you make sure your voice will stay steady and your eyes dry?
As with a toast, the subject of a eulogy is the person being honored, not the speaker. Determining content requires you to focus on the deceased, not on yourself or your grief. List qualities that seem to define the person or his life—wisdom, ambition, curiosity, grace, strength, kindness. Consider anecdotes and situations and circumstances that illustrate those qualities. Evoke scenes, places, words. Use them.
Although a eulogy is a speech of praise, a celebration of life, at times some quality or characteristic that appears less than praiseworthy may raise its truthful head. Author Tom Chiarella writes about a eulogy that moved from examples of thoughtfulness to the sentence, "But I'm here to tell you that Mary was not a glass of milk." The words that followed were delivered with truthful kindness and affection, recalling a real person loved and missed for all that she was.
Find your theme and content will follow—or, build your content and uncover the theme to which it adheres.
A eulogy can take any form.
For his father, author and editor David Frum took a chronological or biographical approach, weaving into it anecdotes and stories that illustrated qualities and characteristics of his father's nature. The dominant quality was optimism, a theme Frum introduced early with the words, "The rules of this beautiful hall did not permit us to bring my father's body with us for this ceremony. Let no one be disappointed. My father hated funerals. He seldom attended them. Why break the habits of a lifetime now?"
Sopranos creator David Chase structured his for actor James Gandolfini as a letter, ending it with a description of an episode not anticipated, one that included scenes and music and never aired.
Mona Simpson divided hers for her brother Steve Jobs by what she learned from him during "three states of being. His full life. His illness. His dying."
Addressing a group in mourning strikes panic in the already broken hearts of many a eulogist. They might worry about a faltering voice, trembling hands, gathering tears. Such signs of emotion can occur. If they do, recover your composure in the time-tested way: Pause. Take a breath. Take another. Establish eye focus again. Then continue.
As always, the best preparation is rehearsal. Hear the words aloud in your own voice, practice gestures, rhythm, and volume until you feel some of the comfort that you hope the eulogy will offer others.