Speaking of the Dead
September 7, 2011 5:14 PM   Subscribe

"STANDING THERE on the dais, consider the world as a series of concentric rings of loyalty. The people in the nearest ring, those in the front row, are owed the most. You should speak first to them. And then, in the next measure, to the room itself, which is the next ring, and only then to the physical world outside, the neighborhood, the town, the place, and then, just maybe, to the machinations of life-muffling institutions." from How to Give a Eulogy.

..."Giving a eulogy is good for you. Period.

It may hurt to write it. And reading it? For some, that's the worst part. The world might spin a little, and everything familiar to you might fade for a few minutes. But remember, remind yourself as you stand there, you are the lucky one.

And that's not because you aren't dead. You were selected. You get to stand, face the group, the family, the world, and add it up. 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. I don't care what you say, bub: That is a gift."
posted by storybored (19 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
This is so great. "I can recall, inside that moment, that the way I kept my composure was to say to myself, I owe her this much at least."

I hear so many bad eulogies, that when a good one comes along, it makes me hold my breath until it's done. Recently, I buried a young man who had been shot in the face by his girlfriend's father. It was a very tense, emotional, heartbreaking service. Especially when the girlfriend showed up, unannounced, at the wake. But during the funeral the next day, the father got up and told the crowd that he wanted to share something with everyone. He talked about his anger at the man who'd killed his son. He talked about the love he had for his boy.

And then he said, "I want to say something here, in front of all you people, about that man who took my child away from me. And I don't care who hears it, and I know that some people want me to just keep my mouth shut, but I'm going to say this out loud." And you could have heard a pin drop. "I love that man. I don't like him, I love him. And I forgive him for what he did. I don't understand why he did it, and maybe I never will. But the God I believe in says that I must love the man who struck down my son. And so I do. Jesus says I must forgive him, and so I do. He will be judged by man's laws and he will be judged by God's laws, but I will not spend the rest of my life being angry at him. Because that will ruin my life and take away my Christianity. And no one can take that from me. Not even with a gun."

It was one of the most amazing eulogies I've ever heard.
posted by ColdChef at 6:49 PM on September 7, 2011 [36 favorites]

Because of this post, I'm reading the eulogy I wrote for the funeral of my best friend and ex-girlfriend, delivered five short years ago. Now I'm crying again. Bloody hell.
posted by In The Annex at 7:29 PM on September 7, 2011

Five years ago I spoke at a buddy's memorial. Chiarella is right: good for one. Sucked at the time, and I can see the gray skies and teary-eyed friends like it was yesterday. But I'm glad spoke.

Also solid advice: write it down.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:33 PM on September 7, 2011

Thanks for this. After seeing Louis CK's tribute to Carlin earlier, and then this piece, now I want Louis to do my eulogy when I go...
posted by mindsound at 7:58 PM on September 7, 2011

Ugh. Sorry. Really unexpectedly long.

I delivered a eulogy for my godfather Mac Small. He died of complications from lung cancer having been a lifelong and excellent smoker. He was about 60, I was about 20. It was absolutely the day I became a man. I can't say with any certainty that I've done anything I'm more proud of in my life than getting up and talking about how I felt.

I don't remember what I said really. I wrote it all down. (in fact by luck I did all of the things mentioned in the article and can confirm they're all absolutely true.) I definitely didn't mean it to be a eulogy. I was just writing down how I felt as simply as I could. I finished it; showed it to my Mum and Dad; who showed it to Mac's widow; who called me and asked me to speak.

"I could see my aunt's hands and the huge glass ashtrays she favored with three or four lipstick-smudged butts cocked in the ashes. I hadn't expected to feel that."

A thousand times this. I have the exact same story. Mac was a potter. He made most of the lamps and ornaments that I remember from the house I grew up in. He made this one particular ashtray that had fired badly and had a little rattly bit loose inside it. Like many of his seconds, it ended up in our house and I purloined it when I went to college. One evening in my first year I stumbled out of bed drunk, gave it a kick and broke it.

I didn't think much of it at the time, and even less when I wrote this memory down in the eulogy. Standing at the dais though, in a Hereford crematorium with a giant of a man dead next to me in a cardboard coffin (he had not been the most successful of potters), brought a whole new and awful significance to the event. I stopped; teared up; tried again; teared up; tried again. I'd written a speech I was incapable of delivering. It took around a minute to get past that innocuous sentence. A minute that stretched into eternity.

"YOU MUST MAKE them laugh"

I know I swore. Mac loved swearing and was the first grown up I said 'fuck' in front of (we were in a car crash together. It was brilliant.). I think I also told the story of when, shortly before Mac died and well into his chemotherapy, we pitched up at another funeral. As we were waiting to file inside, he commented to a mutual friend who had himself recently been diagnosed with an incredibly invasive skin cancer, "It's hardly worth you going home is it?"

Everything else I said was basically a list of his achievements as I saw them: He was the first man to get me properly legless drunk; I dumped a girl once because he told me she was a prick (she was); he made me laugh harder and more often than any grown up in the history of grown ups; he bought me a pocketknife and taught me to roll cigarettes properly. Pretty much your basic Most Awesome Godfather Ever.

After Mac's funeral we all went to the pub and I got so wonderfully drunk. I was clapped on the back, a woman threw herself at me and, around half past ten, a wibbly old man tottered up to me to congratulate me on my speech. He was wearing RAF insignia and was bedecked in medals. I've literally no idea who he was but he looked every inch the kind of person that people of my generation would be delighted to be congratulated by.

My sister drove us all home that night. I got in late, fell into the arms of my new girlfriend (and now wife, who hadn't come thinking it inappropriate,) and cried for two hours solid.
posted by Jofus at 11:39 PM on September 7, 2011 [20 favorites]

I dunno. When my Mother died, it fell to me, her eldest, by my Father's direction, to speak her eulogy. I was angry about her death; despite her gilt edged health insurance, and 297 days of inpatient hospital care, she died in the middle of the night, alone, with a 5 inch diameter hole in her back that started as a diabetic bed sore, and zonked out on Ativan. I was the last of her family to see her, the afternoon of the evening she died, and it took it me 45 minutes to find a floor nurse who would attend to her, and when that happened, the nurse just brought a shot of more Ativan, and seemed pleased when Mother laid back, again, and quit her agitated talk and movement. And then, still, I was stupid enough to think that my Mother's drug induced quiet was "better."

I hadn't cried, even in physical pain, for more than 50 years before the day of my Mother's funeral. But at the hour I was to summarize my Mother's life in front of her family, I couldn't speak, and stood for 5 or 7 minutes, wheezing to breathe, with tears rolling down my face. Finally, I croaked out some remarks, and sat.

Six weeks later, when it was again my duty, to the same audience, to talk about my Father's death from previously unknown lung cancer, I was again angry about his death, and again, words failed me, when tears didn't, for several minutes.

No one who attended those funerals remembers a thing I said at either, and yet, no one there can forget that I cried, uncontrollably, twice, in six weeks.
posted by paulsc at 11:57 PM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I gave the eulogy at my Grandmothers funeral, and I loved it. I loved it because I was happy she'd died & because I love telling groups of people what I think.

There's a marked difference between giving a eulogy for someone who left early and someone like my grandmother. She was too old. Too old and too housebound and she had wanted to die for years. I swear, if her stupid religion didn't count it as a mortal sin, she'd have topped herself years earlier. I'd have stood by her decision.

She didn't get a funeral, because she'd had her body shipped over to Sheffield to be experimented on by medical students & her church refused to call it a funeral if she wasn't there. For me, it was her funeral.

So I did the whole thing. Talked about her, and how proud i was to be her grandson. Talked about how she was part of this amazing line of strong women. Suffragettes and business owners and unifiers across the religious divide. Talked about how she outlived everyone she loved. She outlived her husband by about 60 years and her only daughter by 10. Talked about how she never stopped being a force for equality. How she was practically a communist. Talked about how she was at times the meanest, bitchiest, nastiest old woman you'd ever meet & how hilarious I found that.

It was a good eulogy. It was a nice event, not sad at all, sparsely attended on account of her age. And afterwards, me and the brothers went our separate ways. The event (in itself) didn't change me at all and in many ways - it had a minimal emotional impact.

I suppose I'm saying that to share. And to add to the variety. And because I love telling people what I think.
posted by seanyboy at 12:43 AM on September 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I haven't got much to say other than that every time I read similar pieces, I arrange to meet all the people who matter to me. We all deserve it.
posted by ersatz at 8:03 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a member of the clergy, I'm called upon to officiate at funerals for congregants quite often. The most important rule I have for delivering eulogies that are comforting to the mourners is to really listen to the family when I meet with them to talk about their loved one prior to the funeral, and take very detailed notes. (I've gotten pretty good at writing a mile a minute without breaking eye contact to look down at my notepad).

A really good eulogy then becomes, at its essence, a "Zagat's review" of a person's life. In other words, my job is to accurately communicate at the funeral, as much as possible, the mourners' thoughts and reminiscences in their own words, wherever possible. A great eulogy manages to do this, plus find the common theme that runs through these memories and find a way to bring them all together, without sounding trite. A bad eulogy is where the officiant is more interested in talking about themselves, or what God thinks about all of this.

Hearing a person's life story, and the myriad ways that they've connected to other people on this planet is a strange and beautiful gift, and I feel very blessed to be a part of this experience, however difficult it may be, on a regular basis.
posted by ericbop at 9:27 AM on September 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's no eulogy at a Quaker funeral--we don't do rituals or have ministers, in my line of Quakerism anyway. But a few years ago, a woman from my Quaker meeting died. She was maybe in her 60s. She'd spent her whole life as an activist, starting in the Vietnam era, but she was a pain in everybody's ass. There was a huge turnout for her memorial, and, in, the Quaker way, we sat in silence and people rose to speak as led. I loved her funeral because people pulled no punches talking about what a pain in the ass she was. Clearly she had also inspired a lot of love and respect, but one of the things that united us in our grief at her dying was that she had been rude, abrasive, offensive, snobbish, and elitist to all of us over the years--that was the woman we knew. Admirable, but a pain in the ass. That was a great funeral.

At my uncle's funeral, the minister outright lied about him--my uncle had suffered a catastrophic brain injury as a young man, and throughout his remaining years was bitter about the intelligence he had lost, and prone to angry outbursts. After my grandmother, who had cared for him, died, he became even more difficult. But the minister didn't acknowledge any of that; he told an "inspiring cripple" story instead, about how happy my uncle always was, how he never complained. The minister talked about how beloved he was, and that was true. He lived in his home town and even in his 60s was still having morning coffee with guys he had gone to high school with. But I'd have loved an honest eulogy that admitted his challenges.
posted by not that girl at 9:44 AM on September 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

The first eulogy I can remember really listening to was the one my cousin gave about my grandmother. I even asked him if I could put it online and he said sure, here it is. It managed to be funny and endearing at the same time as it didn't really mince words about someone who had suffered from Alzheimers and who had been a bit of a pain in the ass in real life, "heaven's first khaki-colored halo" indeed.

When my father died his best friend who was a minister gave a very moving graveside eulogy about the post-retirement Tom that I'd known well which was very touching because it was cognizant of but also not focusing on the famous sonofabitch dad who we all loved and feared. I was never sure how to put those sentiments into words without feeling like I was telling tales out of school. It was always our responsibility in the family to uphold the myth even as my father was undermining it himself. At the larger more public Life Celebration my sister and I put on, it was his college roommate and lifelong friend who gave more of a balanced view of the man over a lifetime, focusing on his crazy genius and yet total Martian qualities [telling a story of how my father watched him and his new wife, taking notes on "learning how to be married" so that he could marry my mother, a sign really of why he was so stupidly bad at it] in a way that we didn't have enough remove to do. My sister opened the story-sharing time with a big thank you to people "It would mean a lot to my father to have you here, enjoying his home and food while he ignored you completely" and everyone laughed like hell because it was simultaneously loving and completely true.

I worked with that same friend later to craft my father's alumni magazine obit and was startled by how, in contrast to the eulogy he'd given, bleak and empty the obit was, how it focused not only on his mad genius but also how he died alone and how he had been battling "depression" which was my dad's friends byword for alcoholism. We swapped a few emails between him and my sister and that whole process, explaining how we felt there needed to be some distance between the absolute truth and the myth and the things you want to say in-between that, things that help people process their own thoughts and feelings. I felt that having to give a public eulogy for a complicated man had left a lot of things unsaid that he was still working through on his own, and interacting with us in this way was helping him with that. It certainly helped us.

At the public service Tracy Kidder got up and spoke briefly about how much knowing my father had been a benefit to him personally and how he went through life never quite knowing if that relationship and all that came with it had been beneficial to my father. Sometimes just getting up in front of people and saying that you don't know things, about yourself,a bout the deceased, about your relationship, can be a kindness to share with people having the same feelings.
posted by jessamyn at 12:33 PM on September 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Strongly agree with writing it down. I didn't sleep too much in the days before my dad died. I spent some long nights in the hospital trying my best to make him as comfortable as I could. And even when I went home and got to bed, I couldn't really sleep. I don't think I fully realised how utterly exhausted I was in the days leading up to the funeral. Trying to deliver the eulogy without having written it first would have been a disaster.
posted by TheHollowSeasThatRoar at 4:21 PM on September 8, 2011

I was living with my Uncle and Aunt when my Uncle died. I think the guy who gave the eulogy was a friend of my Uncle's in his final years. But he gave a shitty eulogy, spending far too much time on his own grief at the death of his young daughter, and how it related to our grief at my Uncle's death.

This guy wasn't family. His daughter (whom he and his lost at far too young an age) wasn't family. I kinda got the impression that few people who were in attendance beyond my Aunt knew this guy.

And it kinda felt like a big off-topic grief-dump from outside when it my was Uncle's recently concluded life that was supposed to be the subject @ hand.

My Aunt was not impressed. Neither was I.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:29 PM on September 8, 2011

..."Giving a eulogy is good for you. Period.

This statement is so of-our-moment. A eulogy -- a speech to an assembled crowd, in the honor of a person they have all come to honor. Why do it? It's good for you.
posted by grobstein at 9:16 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This statement is so of-our-moment. A eulogy -- a speech to an assembled crowd, in the honor of a person they have all come to honor. Why do it? It's good for you.

Funerals are for the living. Unless somehow pre-recorded, the eulogist counts among that number.

Why should, in addition to being of benefit to the assembled grievers, there be no recognition that the deliverer of a eulogy gets something out of the act? It's not like the argument is "Personal benefit is the only reason to give a eulogy, end of list". But it might give some people who are unsure about the prospect encouragement. Is that a bad thing?

This isn't some Ayn Rand/"Fuck Society-Me First", but an acknowledgment of the fact that we are part of the community we're addressing. The Eulogy is as much for us as it is for the assembly.

This is why the guy who gave my Uncle's eulogy did a shitty job. He made it about him and his grief not my uncle and his family.

It's one thing to benefit from being of service. It's another thing altogether to hijack the service to your own personal ends.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:48 PM on September 10, 2011

Giving a eulogy is good for you when it comes from the heart and you do it for others, including the deceased.
posted by TheHollowSeasThatRoar at 6:05 PM on September 10, 2011

Just as a note — the next MeFi Mag is about Death, and I'd love to have anyone who's interested share their eulogies. I can understand that sometimes it's too personal; if it's not, we'd love to have you write it up.
posted by klangklangston at 9:38 AM on September 13, 2011

Feel free to snag mine from the link upthread.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2011

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