What Makes a Good Eulogy?

We are always concerned that we say the “right words” when we are speaking with our grieving loved one at the funeral home. That anxiety is multiplied exponentially if we are asked to participate in the service by offering some reflections or the eulogy. What would be the right words to say during a eulogy?

The term “eulogy” is a Greek compound from two words meaning “good” and “word.” Literally, a eulogy is the good word that we have to say about someone. In most settings, the eulogy is but a part of the larger memorial service. They are usually given by associates, friends of family members seeking to have the opportunity to offer personal reflections or tributes to the deceased.

When you have attended funeral services, you have probably noticed that some eulogies flow very smoothly, while others can be awkward and distracting. Are there keys that can guide your words to become a meaningful expression of appreciation for a life well-lived?

1. Good words, not many words.

When we are asked to speak to honor a loved one, it may seem impossible or even irreverent to capture his or her life in a few short words. The things that you want to share could go on for days. Remember though that some of your stories, though priceless to you, may not carry the same impact to others. Remember also that for many in the audience, the funeral service is the culmination of several long, tiring, emotional days. If you need to turn pages of notes to get through what you want to say, you may also be turning the patience of your listener. Keep the words that you say positive and brief. Longer stories can be shared later with individuals.

2. Personal words, not self-centered words.

Although you want the stories and words to be personal, the eulogy is not about you. Don’t get lost in your relationship with the deceased. Stories that you tell should not come across as though you were the star. The stories should illustrate the character or personality of the loved one. You do not have to state that you were close to the deceased. People will understand that by your tone and your attitude. Do not try to convince anyone that you knew the deceased better than anyone else. The mere fact that you had a relationship should be a humbling touch upon your shoulder.

3. Written words, not recited words.

Most people do not enjoy talking in front of people. Public speaking courses are often avoided by college students as long as possible. Speaking in front of people during an intensely emotional occasion is only worse. Feel free to bring a paper or notecards with you as you speak. The time that you take to jot down thoughts will keep your speech focused and concrete.

At the same time, the eulogy should not be a moment for a dramatic reading or to showcase your presentation skills. Although a brief favorite poem of the deceased is appropriate, it is not the place for an oratory of someone else’s prepared words. During a recent funeral, a family member rose to explain that the deceased favorite song was Freebird. What followed for the next fifteen minutes was the live cut of the song from a LynardSkynard album. It left the audience wearisome of the half-ballad, half guitar solo classical hit, and of the funeral.

4. Smiling words, not irreverent words.

Although you were probably not chosen to speak because of winning a contest for the “Last Comic Standing,” a good eulogy can leave the audience with a soft grin, if not on their lips at least in their hearts. A funny story showcasing an endearing characteristic of the deceased is welcomed at this point in the service. Focus on stories, circumstances and character traits that would be familiar to many of those present.

5. Composed words, not tear-free words.

Finally you want the words you choose to be ones that you can deliver in a composed manner. The eulogy does not have to be free from emotion or even tears, but it needs to be presented in a manner that makes the audience remember the loved one, not your emotional struggle to speak. By all means, take the time to rehearse the speech aloud before the service. Don’t assume that because you can deliver the speech “in your head” or “in the shower” that you have practiced the speech. Most of us sing much better in the shower than we do on stage. Find someone who can objectively listen – not a close family member, but perhaps a friend who can be attentive to your words free from the emotion of the moment.

Finally, deliver your speech in your personal style and voice. Speak loudly enough to be heard and compassionate enough to be listened to. Share a message that causes the hearts of all to be glad.