Prepare, Write & Give a Eulogy
Use this guide to help you craft the perfect tribute.
Use this guide to help you craft the perfect tribute.
Writing and giving a eulogy is a way of saying farewell to someone who has died that, in a sense, brings the person to life in the minds of the audience. You don’t have to be a great writer or orator to deliver a heartfelt and meaningful eulogy that captures the essence of the deceased.
For some people, the opportunity to speak during the funeral service about the person they knew is a welcome one – but many of us still do not realise this is possible and believe that eulogies are just for the famous. You’re being asked to do something at the very moment when nothing can be done. You get the last word in the attempt to define the outlines of a life.
There is no right or wrong way to write a eulogy: each is as unique as the person giving it and the person it describes. But even if you’re used to speaking in public, finding words to say can be difficult because of the special circumstances of a funeral. You may be coping with your own grief. You may feel a heavy burden of responsibility to get it ‘right’, in terms of both content – what to say – and tone – how to say it. You may prefer to ask someone else to write it, or perhaps have them on standby to give it for you.
Whatever your thoughts, you should not feel pressured into giving a eulogy or guilty if you feel unable to do so. If you feel you did not know the person well enough, or are simply not that interested in characterising this person’s life, suggest someone else do it, stating that you’re too overcome with grief. This is a hugely important job.
A speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, especially a tribute to someone who has just died.
Late Middle English (in the sense ‘high praise’): from medieval Latin eulogium, eulogia (from Greek eulogia ‘praise’), apparently influenced by Latin elogium ‘inscription on a tomb’ (from Greek elegia ‘elegy’). The current sense dates from the late 16th century. (Oxford Dictionary)
President George W. Bush delivers a eulogy during funeral services for former President Gerald R. Ford at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington.
Start by thinking of the people you are addressing, as well as the person you are describing: the eulogy is about the person, but for the audience.
Who are they – family and close friends only or others too? There may be specific things to say or avoid.
How will they feel? Listening to you will obviously be highly emotional for those closest to the person, and some people will be in tears. But this doesn’t mean the eulogy should be mournful and depressing. People will be grateful if what you say is uplifting and inspiring.
What do they want to hear? Most people want to hear good things about a person who has died, and forget the bad things. But people don’t become saints just because they die. Your audience will want to feel you have captured the essence of the person – what makes them special. So be honest, but selective.
How long should it be? Even in the circumstances of a funeral, many people find it difficult to listen to one person talking for a long time, so a eulogy should really be over in a matter of minutes – just how many is a matter of individual choice.
A good eulogy doesn’t just tell the audience about the person – in a sense it brings the person to life in their imagination and gives them something by which to remember them. You can do this by telling stories about the person: the happy things, the funny things, the sad things, the unusual things that happened, which sum up their life. Talking about these and the enduring qualities which describe what they were really like as a person, will help you build a picture for the audience with your words.
You may have all the information you need, or you may want to speak to other people close to the person to get precise details and check your facts. You may have arranged the funeral as a friend of the deceased, not knowing too much about them and having no relatives to turn to for information, in which case you can base your eulogy on your impressions of them as a person. Once you have the material and have thought about it in relation to the people you are talking to, you are ready to start putting it together.
Use these points to help build memories and stories.
Here are some prompts to help you get started:
The hardest task in preparing any talk is often not so much deciding what you’re going to say as deciding how to organise it into a structure with a beginning, middle and end. There are no hard and fast rules – here are some suggestions about preparation and use our Guide to Public Speaking for more in depth tips.
Dwell on the positive, but be honest. If the person was difficult or inordinately negative, avoid talking about that or allude to it gently. Make sure you don’t say anything that would offend, shock, or confuse the audience. For example, don’t make any jokes or comments about the deceased that would be a mystery to the majority of the crowd.
How serious or light-hearted do you want the eulogy to be? A good eulogy need not be uniformly sombre, just appropriate. Some eulogy-writers take a serious approach, others are bold enough to add humour. Used cautiously, humour can help convey the personality of the deceased and illustrate some of his or her endearing qualities.
The tone can also be partially determined by the way the deceased passed away. If you’re giving a eulogy about a teenager who met an untimely death, then your tone would be more serious than it would if you were giving a eulogy about a grandparent who happily lived to see his ninetieth birthday.
Yes, if it helps. But if you do, speak it out to yourself as you’re writing, otherwise your words may sound stilted when you actually come to deliver it. When we speak normally, we don’t speak in perfect sentences. What’s important isn’t the grammar, but the points you are making and the stories you are telling. So if you can, don’t write word for word, but put key points on a card to have with you. An exception to this is where you are using a piece of poetry or song, in which case you may want the exact words to hand.
Even if most people in the audience know you, just state your name and give a few words that describe your relationship to the deceased. If it’s a really small crowd, you can start with, “For anybody who doesn’t know me…” If you’re related to the deceased, describe how; if not, say a few words about how and when you met.
Avoid clichés like “We are gathered here today…” and begin as you mean to go on, with something special to that person. After introducing yourself, it may be best to get straight to your point as everyone knows why there are there. For example: “There are many things for which she will be remembered, but what we will never forget is her sense of humour…
Though your eulogy doesn’t have to read like an obituary or give all of the basic information about the life of the deceased, you should touch on a few key points, such as what his family life was like, what his career achievements were, and what hobbies and interests mattered the most to him. You can find a way of mentioning this information while praising or remembering the deceased.
Write down the names of the family members especially closed to the deceased. You may forget their names on the big day because you’re overwhelmed by sadness, so it’s advisable to have them on hand.
Make sure you say something specific about the family life of the deceased — this would be very important to his family.
These points are discussed in more detail in the Funeralcare Well Chosen Words guide.
Illustrate parts of their life with a story and give specific examples of great or kind things they have done.
Mention a quality and then illustrate it with a story. It is the stories that bring the person–and that quality–to life. Talk to as many people as you can to get their impressions, memories, and thoughts about the deceased, and then write down as many memories of your own as you can. Look for a common theme that unites your ideas, and try to illustrate this theme through specific examples.
Give the eulogy a beginning, middle, and end. Avoid rambling or, conversely, speaking down to people. You may have a sterling vocabulary, but dumb it down for the masses just this once. The average eulogy is about 3-5 minutes long. That should be enough for you to give a meaningful speech about the deceased. Remember that less is more; you don’t want to try the patience of the audience during such a sad occasion.
Decide the best order for what you’re going to say:
Once you’re written the eulogy and feel fairly confident in what you’ve written, have some close friends or family members who know the deceased well read it to make sure that it’s not only accurate, but that it does well with capturing the essence of the deceased. They’ll also be able to see if you’ve said anything inappropriate, forgotten something important, stated incorrect facts or wrote anything that was confusing or difficult to understand.
If you intend to play a piece of music or give a reading after your eulogy, you can end by explaining why you’ve chosen it. If not, then a good way could be to end with a short sentence of farewell, maybe the very last thing you said to them – or wanted to say to them – before they died.
As with thinking and writing about the person, there is no right way to speak about them. However people sometimes do things, usually when they’re feeling nervous or self-conscious, which can interfere with the audience’s ability to follow and reflect on their words.
Read the draft of your eulogy aloud. If you have time, read it to someone as practice. Words sound differently when read aloud than on paper. If you have inserted humour, get feedback from someone about its appropriateness and effectiveness. Consider using a virtual reality app to help immerse you in a realistic environment while practising.
This could help you polish the text as well as giving you greater control over your emotions on the day itself.
Though you should hope that you’re emotionally prepared to give the speech on the big day, you should have a close friend or family member who has read the eulogy be prepared to read it for you in case you’re too choked up to read it. Though you probably won’t need one, you’ll feel more relaxed just knowing that you have a backup if you need one.
Talk or read your eulogy to the audience as if you are talking to friends. Make eye contact. Pause. Go slowly if you want. Connect with your audience and share the moment with them; after all, you’re not an entertainer, you’re one of them. There’s no need to be formal when you’re surrounded by loved ones who share your grief.
Wear clothes appropriate to the occasion, the audience and the person who has died. If you look out of place, you will only distract people from your words.
Even though you may at first feel a little exposed, it helps people see and hear you better. While standing, try not to fidget or make nervous gestures, it will only distract people.
When we are nervous, we tend to speak too quickly. By speaking slowly, you give yourself time to think and choose your words. You also give people time to take in and think about what you’re saying. And if you’re in a large room, speaking slowly helps you project your voice.
Don’t worry if you find yourself losing your words or overcome with emotion. Pause, take a few deep breaths and carry on. There’s no requirement on you to give a slick and polished talk and people will be supportive.
Memorise as much of the speech as you can. On the day, try not to read word for word. Or if you do, make sure you have written it to be spoken, not read. Your words will sound more heartfelt if you’re not reading every sentence right off the page.
“We are all united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so. For such was her extraordinary appeal that the tens of millions of people taking part in this service all over the world via television and radio who never actually met her, feel that they too lost someone close to them in the early hours of Sunday morning. It is a more remarkable tribute to Diana than I can ever hope to offer her today.
Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.
Today is our chance to say thank you for the way you brightened our lives, even though God granted you but half a life. We will all feel cheated always that you were taken from us so young and yet we must learn to be grateful that you came along at all. Only now that you are gone do we truly appreciate what we are now without and we want you to know that life without you is very, very difficult.
We have all despaired at our loss over the past week and only the strength of the message you gave us through your years of giving has afforded us the strength to move forward.”
“Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality.”
When I met Steve, he was a guy my age in jeans, Arab- or Jewish-looking and handsomer than Omar Sharif. We took a long walk – something, it happened, that we both liked to do. I don’t remember much of what we said that first day, only that he felt like someone I’d pick to be a friend. He explained that he worked in computers.
I didn’t know much about computers. I still worked on a manual Olivetti typewriter. I told Steve I’d recently considered my first purchase of a computer: something called the Cromemco. Steve told me it was a good thing I’d waited. He said he was making something that was going to be insanely beautiful.
I want to tell you a few things I learned from Steve, during three distinct periods, over the 27 years I knew him. They’re not periods of years, but of states of being. His full life. His illness. His dying.
Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day. That’s incredibly simple, but true. He was the opposite of absent-minded. He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.
“Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day. That’s incredibly simple, but true. He was the opposite of absent-minded. He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.”
He has gone, and all over India there is a feeling of having been left desolate and forlorn. All of us sense that feeling, and I do not know when we shall be able to get rid of it. And yet together with that feeling there is also a feeling of proud thankfulness that it has been given to us of this generation to be associated with this mighty person.
In ages to come, centuries and maybe millennia after us, people will think of this generation when this man of God trod on earth, and will think of us who, however small, could also follow his path and tread the holy ground where his feet had been.
“In ages to come, centuries and maybe millennia after us, people will think of this generation when this man of God trod on earth, and will think of us who, however small, could also follow his path and tread the holy ground where his feet had been.”
Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. He rose to prominence in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, led the famous March on Washington in 1963, and the March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. A brilliant orator and writer, whose insistence upon nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition accounted for the success of the movement, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, by a white man.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of injustice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another”
Mrs. Kennedy, Kara, Edward, Patrick, Curran, Caroline, members of the Kennedy family, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:
Today we say goodbye to the youngest child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. The world will long remember their son Edward as the heir to a weighty legacy; a champion for those who had none; the soul of the Democratic Party; and the lion of the U.S. Senate – a man whose name graces nearly one thousand laws, and who penned more than three hundred himself.
But those of us who loved him, and ache with his passing, know Ted Kennedy by the other titles he held: Father. Brother. Husband. Uncle Teddy, or as he was often known to his younger nieces and nephews, “The Grand Fromage,” or “The Big Cheese.” I, like so many others in the city where he worked for nearly half a century, knew him as a colleague, a mentor, and above all, a friend.
Ted Kennedy has gone home now, guided by his faith and by the light of those he has loved and lost. At last he is with them once more, leaving those of us who grieve his passing with the memories he gave, the good he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image – the image of a man on a boat; white mane tousled; smiling broadly as he sails into the wind, ready for what storms may come, carrying on toward some new and wondrous place just beyond the horizon. May God Bless Ted Kennedy, and may he rest in eternal peace.
“But those of us who loved him, and ache with his passing, know Ted Kennedy by the other titles he held: Father. Brother. Husband. Uncle Teddy, or as he was often known to his younger nieces and nephews, “The Grand Fromage,” or “The Big Cheese.” I, like so many others in the city where he worked for nearly half a century, knew him as a colleague, a mentor, and above all, a friend.”
Live your life that the fear of death
can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about his religion.
Respect others in their views
and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life,
beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long
and of service to your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day
when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting
or passing a friend, or even a stranger, if in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people, but grovel to none.
When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light,
for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks,
the fault lies in yourself.
Touch not the poisonous firewater that makes wise ones turn to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
When your time comes to die, be not like those
whose hearts are filled with fear of death,
so that when their time comes they weep and pray
for a little more time to live their lives over again
in a different way.
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.
The Teaching of Tecumseh
It is the secret of the world
that all things subsist and do not die,
but only retire a little from sight
and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead;
men feign themselves dead,
and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries,
and there they stand looking out of the window,
sound and well, in some new strange disguise.
Jesus is not dead;
he is very well alive;
nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor Aristotle;
at times we believe we have seen them all,
and could easily tell the names under which they go.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
For additional quotes, funeral poems & readings, visit the write-out-loud website.