I have a strange obsession with eulogies. It might be an occupational hazard. I have to deliver at least one eulogy a week.
I’ve also heard hundreds of eulogies from family members and friends. Many inspired me and made me look at my own life differently. And learning from good example eulogies helps sharpen my writing.
In thinking about how to write a eulogy, I recognize that good eulogies not only paint a picture of the deceased. They provide insight on the meaning of life because they prod us to think how we want to be remembered.
A few months ago, a friend told me she had been asked to deliver a eulogy for a beloved aunt. She asked me to outline some guidelines on how to write a eulogy.
This was not the first such request. Many of us will be called upon to deliver eulogies. But few guides exist on how to write a eulogy.
Here are the basic guidelines to follow:
1. Speak from the heart:
A great Jewish sage named Ibn Pakuda said, “Words from the heart enter the heart.” When we write what’s in our hearts, we move the hearts of others.
The heart does not care about a person’s titles. It doesn’t look at a person’s resume. The heart cares about a person’s love.
A good eulogy talks about the way our loved one made us feel. It also talks about the way we felt about them.
Be specific. How did it feel when he or she gave us a hug or called us on the phone? How did it feel when they walked into a room?
A person is more than a series of numbers or accomplishments. A life is more than a number of years. We reveal what matters most when we reveal the ways a loved one mattered most to us.
2. Keep remarks brief:
Yes, this can be hard, especially for a beloved parent. How can we sum up a life in five or ten minutes?
The key is to remind yourself that the real goal of a eulogy is not sum up a life. It is to honor a legacy. It is to elicit laughs, smiles and tears. It is to capture a person’s essence in a way that is memorable and meaningful.
One good story can do that. Even a poem can do that. I often tell family members that less is more. The deceased probably meant different things to different people. Saying less gives each mourner the opportunity to hear and remember more.
3. Tell stories:
We remember stories more than facts. Think about a sermon or a book you have heard or read. Do you remember the statistics cited or the stories told? Human beings are wired for story.
When you tell a story, you make your loved one more memorable. You captured him or her in a familiar way. And our actions reveal our character. A story reveals our loved one’s behavior in honest ways.
4. Get help:
We don’t have to share only what we remember. We can share the stories and memories of friends, family, co-workers and others. In fact, sharing others’ memories in a eulogy broadens the power of words. The eulogy captures dimensions of our loved ones we may never have seen.
5. Share your emotions:
A eulogy is serious but not necessarily somber. We can laugh, cry, and smile. Sometimes a funny story resonates deeply.
I remember one person who always used to order dessert before the meal. She would always say “Life is short. Eat dessert first.” Everyone knew that about her, and the story sparked smiles and nods.
6. Look for the ordinary:
I often tell couples preparing to marry that in a relationship, the little things are the big things; the everyday activities make us who we are.
Think about exercise: Are we in better shape if we do a little exercise every day, or if we do one long workout every month?
So what reveals more about a person: what they did every day, or what they did once in a while? When we talk about a loved one, we can look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.
7. Highlight what mattered most to you:
In the eighteenth century, a great rabbi used to lecture to rooms full of students. As the rabbi spoke, each student would whisper to the person sitting next to him: “The rabbi is speaking directly to me. He knows exactly what I am thinking.”
Our loved ones spoke directly to us. They created unique memories with each of us. When we share those specific memories, we invite others to think about their particular memories. Instead of simply saying, “He was a good man,” or “She was a great mom,” we can mention specific qualities—his sense of humor or her way with words—that mattered to us.
Remember, a great architect once said, “God is in the details.” When it comes to honoring a loved one’s memory, truth is in the details. Delivering a good eulogy reveals those truths.
Delivering eulogies is the among the most important work I do as a rabbi. But it is a sacred responsibility not only for clergy.
Each of us—if we are willing and able—can honor our loved ones by sharing the light they brought into the world. God created each of us for a reason, and a eulogy reminds us of the unique creation God brought into the world.
Have You Ever Been Touched by a Powerful Eulogy?