Last Call

Advice for Eulogists

What to say? What mood to strike?

By From the May 2011 issue

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Death is final, but it leaves you with the same old questions of form and content. What to say, what mood to strike? And how to deliver -- a question not just of style but composure. If you can't get through it, nothing else will matter.

The key to that part, an old friend offers, is to forget everything you ever heard about public speaking. Don't look at the audience. Look up or away, he says; focus on something inanimate. If you catch the eye of someone you haven't seen in years, you might dissolve. Good advice.

You could start with a joke. That depends on the circumstances. (If death comes as a catharsis, joke away. If it comes as a cataclysm, steer clear.) Remember the one about the lady who takes her pet duck to the vet? That's a bit off point. Better: the priest who gives a sermon on the inevitability of death and intones, "Every member of this parish is going to die, some of you sooner than later." He sees an old man quaking with laughter in the front pew and demands to know what's so funny. The old man: "I'm not a member of this parish." But even the most benign joke carries some risk. You might be safer telling a story about the deceased that brings a laugh of recognition.

Probably you haven't spent years thinking about how to do this, let alone writing it up in multiple drafts that, when the moment comes, suddenly reveal themselves as useless. That's your good fortune. I know a guy who did it that way and believe me, it's quite stressful. He had no peace. I know another guy who wrote out on scrap paper an outline of themes, each with an anecdote to illustrate it. He got up there and spoke for five minutes, and he was flawless. This is certainly the model to emulate.

What to say? Assuming the deceased was not Joan of Arc or Winston Churchill, you'll want to note their accomplishments, but it's best to avoid overstatement. Respect the dead by respecting proportion. You might summarize the deceased's life and work and then get on to more fundamental things, like character. Did the deceased extend himself? Was he brave or wise? Did he have humor? If you make an honest effort at capturing this life, you might stumble onto a formulation that's vaguely surprising but seems like a discovery. It's bound to be true; use it. Cut something else, but don't cut that.

Try to keep your role in perspective. The fact is that people will be happy to hear anything competent, respectful, and genuine. Go beyond that, and you will amaze them.

Then again, to give the neurotic his due: you won't get a second chance at this. You may say memorable things about the deceased in the years ahead, but you'll never get another chance to say them here. This isn't one of those tasks that you want to mail in.

Honestly, you don't want to blow this. How would you live with yourself?

Now, don't panic. Get one of those mini-sized bottled waters and put it in your pocket. Then, when your throat goes dry from nerves, you're prepared. One rule about public speaking still applies: waiting is the hard part. Standing up finally comes as a relief.

So take a deep breath, exhale -- this really does help -- fix your eyes on a point in the distance, and speak strong and slow and clear. Say the words that need saying. And don't let the occasion overwhelm you. If possible, remember gratitude: you still have a job to do. Death is final, but it hasn't got you yet. 

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.