How to Avoid a Deadly Eulogy


“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”~ Jerry Seinfeld

How to sum up an entire life in a few well-chosen words?  That’s what a eulogy’s supposed to be, and it’s scary. It’s intimidating. It feels overwhelming. It’s also an incredible gift you have to give. You're doing something at the very moment when nothing else can be done.

So here are some clues to making it count -- to spotlighting the small truths and details that give a life shape and meaning. We offer examples from one of the best we’ve heard. Let’s start with the basics:


Begin With a Story

Instead of introducing yourself right off the bat, begin with a vignette about your life together. Paint a picture that pulls your listeners in. 

“When my sister was deployed to Iraq, Grandma did what she does best. She  stopped by The Catholic Supply Store and picked out a rosary, then hit the clearance section at Shop n Save for the ultimate care package. She needed her granddaughter to know that God and her family had her back.”


Remember Your Audience

The people in the front row, closest family and dear friends, deserve your best. Speak first to them. Next, to those in the room and last to the world outside -- the neighborhood, the town, and maybe to the larger world.

“Grandma loved us with a fierce loyalty that was infinite. She always made us feel safe, and had a gentle way with words.”

Write It Down

This is not the time to make people suffer through off-the-cuff memories or rambling, sentimental wanderings. A well-conceived eulogy is purposeful, organized, and specific.


Avoid Tired Cliches

“She was like an angel” doesn’t tell the listener much, except that you couldn’t think of anything more descriptive to say. Our friend said this instead:

 “She loved tomatoes from her garden, James Garner, Italian food, the penny slots. She had a sweet tooth and an affinity for big hats and costume jewelry.”


Don’t Read Poetry, Sing, or Include Random Quotes about Death 

Keep it simple. The point is to give listeners a sense of who the deceased was. It’s not about your beautiful voice or how well-read you are. A notable exception: If the person had a favorite phrase or quote that she actually used in life, like this one …

In the words of Elvis Presley: “I believe the key to happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.”


Make Them Laugh

Laughter is critical at a funeral (see the opening above). The best laughs come with honesty about the foibles of the dead. Don’t be afraid to tell a story that describes their quirks.

 “She had an infectious laugh that made people join in her joy. She took every opportunity to show her love. She never missed a birthday, a baptism, a first communion. AND she could drink like a sailor. 


You Might Even Cry

Don’t let tears stop you, and don’t let them get in the way.That's why you write it down and why you read it aloud until you feel every response to every detail. Know where the hard parts are and then just let yourself feel. At the end of the day that’s what you’re going for: To help those who came to express their grief, to say goodbye, and to comfort others, feel the heart and soul of the person who has died. To know them in a way they may not have during life.

Betsy JacobsonComment