Some of the best advice I was given when my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer was to write his eulogy while he was alive. Horrified at first, I took a breath and thought about it. Why was I so upset by this advice? My initial reaction was superstitious — I thought writing about his death while he was alive was in some way wishing him dead or hastening his death. Then I came to my senses and realized I could no more hasten his death than slow it down. In fact I was powerless over his demise. The one thing I could do, though, was to send him off with honor and dignity and love.
The person who suggested eulogy writing in advance made a great point. Immediately after my father’s death I was likely going to be much too upset to do justice to writing his story. That was absolutely true. I would not have been able to write what I wanted to say if I waited until he died.
So I wrote the eulogy my father deserved to have delivered. What makes a good eulogy? Here’s my advice in list form:
1. Consider the small things that made your parent’s life compelling. Tell a story or two about your parent that most of the attendees to the funeral don’t know. Don’t just talk about what he or she did for a living; describe what made his or her life matter.
2. Share a personal memory. Did your mom teach you how to hit a baseball or how to cook or how to change the washer in a faucet? Did your dad teach you how to drive, thereby risking his own life? Did he go to every store in town to buy you the Barbie doll you most wanted for your 7th birthday only to come home with three because he didn’t know there would be more than one to pick from?
Share something only you shared with your parent. That will give people an insight into the person they came to honor in a way only you can provide.
3. Describe some family history. People come to a funeral to show respect. It’s always interesting and respectful to give a nod to those who came before in your family. Where did his or her parents hail from? What was your parent’s childhood like? Family tree information is fascinating background.
4. Don’t dwell on the saddest parts. Your parent’s death may have come too soon or been really awful for the family or for you but your parent’s life is so much more than his or her death. This passing hurts you now but with time you will be able to remember your parent and feel good in that memory. Imagine one of the memories you know will make you smile in the future and focus on describing that time.
5. Speak from the heart but read the eulogy, don’t wing it. Write exactly what you want to say. Don’t worry about being articulate or using just the right words. Say what you feel and write it down. Then read it aloud several times before the service. You will likely be nervous and perhaps overcome with emotion but practicing what you will say will help. If you cry, so be it. Everyone will understand. Take your time. Read slowly and don’t look up if you think that might throw you off.
6. Don’t worry about what the audience will think. Speak about your parent in a way he or she would appreciate. At a funeral I attended recently, the family members spoke about the loved one’s sense of humor. They said things that would have made him laugh. Some attendees laughed along with the family. Some were aghast at “joking” at a funeral. But the family knew the most important attendee would have loved it. That’s what matters.