How to Write a Eulogy

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Help! How do I write a eulogy?

If you’ve been asked to deliver a eulogy at a loved one’s funeral or memorial service, it’s quite normal to be conflicted. On the one hand, giving a eulogy is a great honour. On the other, it might be feeling like an incredibly daunting – maybe even impossible – task. 

There might also be a whole range of questions that spring to mind:

How do I write a eulogy?

What kind of things should I say?

What kind of things should I not say?

What if I don’t like public speaking?

What if I can’t get through the eulogy without crying?

These concerns are natural and can plague even those who are frequently in the public eye. Consider someone like Caroline Kennedy who, despite being a member of the well-known Kennedy family, and an American author, attorney, and diplomat, has acknowledged that public speaking is “unbelievably stressful” for her. In 2009, Kennedy overcame these nerves to deliver a eulogy at her uncle Edward Kennedy’s memorial service. Although Kennedy was visibly nervous and, at times, her voice wavered, she commemorated her uncle with love, admiration and sentimental humour.

Caroline Kennedy Eulogy Edward Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy delivers a eulogy for her uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy

5 steps to writing a eulogy

While giving a eulogy is never going to be easy, adequate planning and preparation will ensure you are up to the challenge. We’ve put together this guide to writing a eulogy to step you through that planning process. It’ll help you structure your thoughts, keep you focused and leave you feeling prepared for this important task.

What is a eulogy?

First, let’s clarify what a eulogy is. In contrast to an obituary (an announcement of a loved one in a newspaper) or an elegy (a poem or song lamenting the deceased), a eulogy is a speech given at a funeral or memorial service which honours a loved one by commemorating and celebrating their life. A eulogy is usually given by a member of the deceased’s family or a close friend, though it can also be given by a priest, minister or celebrant. A eulogist often shares thoughts and memories of the deceased, paying tribute to their life, and the impact they had on the lives of others.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at 5 important steps you should take when writing a eulogy.

Step 1: Brainstorm

Before drafting your funeral speech, take some time to brainstorm your thoughts and ideas. As a start, try answering some of these questions:

What’s your favourite memory of the deceased?

What was your favourite thing about the deceased?

Are there any photos of the deceased or keepsakes that you have that have particular significance to you? What’s the story behind them?

Was there something the deceased did or said that always made you laugh?

Is there something you knew about the deceased that not everyone at the memorial service knows?

What made your relationship with the deceased special?

What three words first come to mind when describing the deceased?

What did people love about the deceased?

If you could say one more thing to the deceased, what would it be?

Billy Crystal delivers a eulogy for his friend Muhammad Ali

If you need help answering these questions, look at photos, emails or other communications from the deceased. Visit their house or places that you liked to go with them. Best of all, talk to people who loved the deceased as much as you did – it can be nice to share a trip down memory lane and your discussions will help you put your feelings and memories into words.

Step 2: Get the details on the service

There’s no point spending hours drafting a 30 minute eulogy only to be told once you arrive at the service that you’ve been allocated a 5 minute speaking slot. Before you start writing your eulogy, make sure you know some important facts about the service:

What type of service is it? Is it a traditional funeral service or a more customised memorial service?

Is it fairly formal or a more casual affair?

How long have you been allocated?

Is anyone else giving a eulogy or are you the only one?

If others are speaking, where have you been placed in the speaking order?

Knowing these details will help you keep your funeral speech within the allocated time slot, and assist you in avoiding any overlap and writing with an appropriate tone.

In any case, avoid the temptation to speak for too long – around 8-10 minutes is usually appropriate. While you of course want to give your loved one the eulogy they deserve, all audiences have a limited attention span and you don’t want yours to grow bored and restless before you finish.

Michelle Obama gives a eulogy for Maya Angelou
Michelle Obama gives a eulogy for Maya Angelou

Step 3: Prepare a rough draft

It’s now time to prepare a rough draft of your eulogy.

Review your brainstorming notes and select a few meaningful points that you’d like to share at the service. For example, one of your points might be the challenges your grandfather overcame during his lifetime. Or, you might want to discuss the charity work your best friend devoted herself to. Your points can be sad, happy or funny – or a mixture of all three – whatever you feel best reflects your loved one.

If possible, try to select points with a common theme or thread as this will help your eulogy flow, and give it a natural beginning, middle and end. The theme might be something along the lines of the type of person the deceased was – for example, someone who gave of themselves completely, or someone with a big personality and an enthusiasm for life – or it could be a more symbolic theme, like resilience, or love.

Write your rough draft by elaborating on your selected points. Think about the anecdotes or memories you want to use to convey those points, and the level of detail and/or background information you need to include. Are the mourners so familiar with the deceased that no additional facts are required? Or do you need to make sure that you give extra details when sharing stories or memories so that friends and family hearing them for the first time will understand them? Keep in mind that there are some occasions where adding detail can make a story more intimate and reflect the special nature of a memory or experience that you and your loved one shared.

There’s no need to use complicated language or fancy phrasing when writing your eulogy. Simple words are just as effective at conveying your points and are easier for mourners to receive and relate to. Think back to 2006 when Bindi Irwin, who was just eight years old, delivered a eulogy for her father, Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. She said:

“My Daddy was my hero – he was always there for me when I needed him. He listened to me and taught me so many things, but most of all he was fun.”

Bindi’s speech was simple but straight from the heart, and didn’t leave many dry eyes amongst the 5,000 mourners in attendance.

Bindi Irwin delivers a eulogy for her father, Steve Irwin
Bindi Irwin delivers a eulogy for her father, Steve Irwin

Many people find this step particularly challenging so just try to get something down on paper. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense or how it sounds – you can go back and edit it later. The important thing is to have your thoughts written down. Delivering a eulogy is difficult – on top of the nerves that naturally accompany public speaking, you’re likely to be feeling emotional and possibly a little stressed about doing the deceased justice. In this state, with your speech only in your head, it’s easy to lose sight of your key points and to ultimately give a eulogy that is one long ramble. Obviously, this is not the goodbye you want to give, and not the effect you want to have on your audience who are likely to either be bored or simply unable to follow something so unstructured and unfocused. Take it from us, write your eulogy down. Even if you memorise it off by heart, or ad lib bits and pieces on the day, having a written funeral speech will keep you on track and ensure your eulogy is the loving tribute you intend it to be.

Step 4: Edit and refine your speech

Once you’ve got your thoughts down on paper, read it through a few times with a more critical eye. Does it have a good flow from beginning to end? Will all the anecdotes make sense to those hearing them for the first time? Are you sure that your feelings about the deceased, and the way that you want to memorialise them, have been conveyed to the best of your ability? Take some time to make tweaks and cut out anything which is repetitive or unnecessary.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers a eulogy for cartoonist Bill Leak
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers a eulogy for cartoonist Bill Leak

Step 5: Practise, practise, practise

Don’t make the mistake of reading your eulogy aloud for the first time at the funeral service – practise your speech beforehand. This has several advantages:

  • you’ll ensure you’re within the allocated time limit;
  • you can identify and iron out any phrases which are awkward, don’t really make sense when spoken aloud, or which cause you to stumble;
  • you’ll gain confidence in your delivery – this is the best way to ensure your love for the deceased comes through in your eulogy.

When practising, try to remember these key points:

  • speak slowly and clearly – it’s normal when speaking publicly to automatically speed up, so practising your speech at a slower pace will help to counteract this. Try also to articulate your words so that they will be heard regardless of the acoustics or microphone equipment available on the day;
  • adopt a comfortable stance – stand with your feet slightly apart and your weight distributed evenly between both feet. Try not to sway or shift from one foot to the other;
  • pause often – this makes it easier for the audience to take in your words and gives you a moment to rest before moving to your next point;
  • make eye contact – it can be hard when you’re nervous and emotional to do anything but read straight from the words on the page but, if you can, try to look up at your audience every so often. This will allow your audience to really connect to the stories you are sharing and, you never know, you may just find comfort in seeing a familiar face in the crowd.
Elton John gives piano eulogy for Princess Diana
Elton John gives a piano eulogy for Princess Diana

The delivery

Having followed our 5 steps to writing a eulogy, you’re now ready to deliver your tribute. Remember, many people find public speaking difficult, and you’re taking on the challenge while already in an emotional state. Give yourself a break. It’s normal to feel a little anxious or nervous, or even to be teary and a bit of a mess. But with your thoughts down on paper and having practised your funeral speech a couple of times, you’re going to do your loved one proud.

A couple of final pointers when it comes to giving your eulogy:

  • place a glass of water close by – you may need to take a couple of sips if your throat gets dry;
  • if you stumble or read something incorrectly, just keep going – even the best speech givers aren’t perfect in their delivery and, chances are, no one but you will even remember the error once the speech is done;
  • showing emotion is no big deal – many people worry about becoming emotional while giving a eulogy. Don’t. Showing emotion while remembering a loved one is completely normal and to be expected. Your audience will understand. If you do start to feel emotional, pause your speech and take some deep breaths. Focus on your breathing and on trying to calm down until you regain composure.

At the end of the day, while we do think it’s important to be prepared and rehearsed, giving a eulogy is not really about whether you give a perfectly enunciated delivery or how many times you manage to make eye contact. If you dig deep and speak from the heart, you’ll give your loved one the tribute they deserve, and you’ll allow their friends and family to share in that love. And then your eulogy will be a job well done.

Have you given a eulogy? Who was it for? Are there any tips you can share? Let us know in the comments below.

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