Monday, May 28, 2012

5 Tips for Giving an Honorable Eulogy

It's Memorial Day in the United States today. A day we are supposed to remember the men and women who have died in battle defending our country (and the free world), both its land and its peoples, as well as its ideals and interests.

Today, “war” doesn't mean the same thing, isn't perceived the same way, as it was back when we were extricating ourselves from the British, fighting among ourselves in the Civil War, or banding together with the Allied Forces in World War II – but soldiers have gone forward under the same mindset in all generations: to give service, and even their lives, to their country.

Offering a memorial talk for anyone, be it a soldier, a friend, a parent, a grandparent, or even a child, poses a challenge to even the most seasoned speaker. Rarely, however, are all, or even any of the mourners 'seasoned speakers'. Instead, it is family and friends who are pressed into service with little time to prepare, much less process, the emotion involved in their task.

If this someone is you, or someone you know, I hope the ideas below will help you offer your thoughts and bring comfort to those in mourning with you.

5 Tips for Giving an Honorable Eulogy

1. Be Personal. Unless you're an outside moderator, such as a preacher or public official, you had a connection to the deceased. Share the connection. Use your personal relationship as a touchstone in your talk, so we can see where in their life you fit in. It will make your words more meaningful, and perhaps give us insight into whom we're mourning, even if we thought we knew everything about them.

B. Tell Stories. How did you first meet? Did you have any adventures? What is your lasting memory of interacting with them? Starting with “I remember when...” will instantly put you into your tale, and help transport the audience from this somber scene to one that held more joy, more excitement, more hope.

Stay positive, and don't reveal facts that were meant to remain private, or that could create controversy. Now is not the time to reveal embarrassments or shocking realities. Now is the time to be honoring, focusing on the best aspects of the life that was lived.

C. Laughter Heals. In most cases, it IS okay to use humor in a eulogy. Your funny anecdotes with your friend will help others remember their own joyful moments. Keep in mind there is a difference between being humorous and making fun. In a memorial, the deceased should never be demeaned or called out for the sake of a laugh. The less you knew him or her, the less you know those gathering, the more cautious you should be. Finding humor in times of pain, however, can be a great way to honor the dead and help heal the living.

There are many types of memorial services. If you're at a wake, humor can be more involved and is actually expected and desirable. If it's a ceremonial burial, humor may be taboo. Know the situation you're in.

D. Be Short. The longer you speak, the greater the chance you will either be overcome with emotion, or your audience will become overcome with the desire to make you sit down. Don't try to say everything – just hit one or two points, and sit down so the next person can speak.

If it is your child, parent, or sibling, you can't really put a time limit on your grief – you have a lifetime of thoughts to share. Going on too long, however, opens the door for you to say more than you want to, and can go from healing to despondency, from honoring to painful public grieving. Start with two or three ideas you definitely want to share, and if you go long, no one will think less of you. But know that once you have said what you were determined to say, you can sit down before breaking down, confident you've honored their memory the way you intended.

E. Speak Like a Human. Don't put pressure on yourself to be eloquent.  You can use a quote, a poem, even a verse from a song (said or sung), as long as it is pertinent to the deceased rather than an opportunity for you to look good. This is not the time to be concerned with giving the greatest eulogy in history. Be yourself – talking to a group of other people who loved the person you are honoring, just like you did.

We've seen a fair amount of very public memorials in the last 20 years that have 'raised the bar' for what we might expect from ourselves – from the pomp and circumstance of Princess Diana to the entertainment extravaganza of Michael Jackson to the somber despair witnessed following September 11th, 2001. Most of us won't find ourselves in those situations. Most of us will be in front of 25 to 200 friends and family in an afternoon service, at a loss for breath, much less for words. Don't expect yourself to be superhuman in these most human of moments.

Remember the memorial service is more for the living than the dead. It is a time for grieving for most, whether that comes through tears over death, celebration of life, or, most likely, a combination of the two. You've been asked to speak both for your own peace of mind and to add to the collective honoring of those in attendance – your thoughts, your memories, matter. Be Personal, Tell Stories, Laugh, Be Short, and Be Human – and you will show your honor and respect for both the living and the dead.

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