Death takes people by surprise. Even when an elderly or infirm person passes we are shocked by the news. Funerals, therefore, unlike other ceremonies, aren’t scheduled far in advance and the eulogy is one ceremonial speech that is often prepared in haste and as the bereft speaker is experiencing an exhausting combination of shock and sadness.
Yet, amid this distress, it is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility of composing a final, formal statement of praise to the decedent. It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility for articulating thoughts and feelings at the time others report that they “just can’t speak.” It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibilities of “saying a few words” just when others insist that words are insufficient to describe their loss or the meaning of their lost loved one’s life.
In point of fact, speech offers us a lot in this saddest of situations. A eulogy is actually a tribute in words to an individual at the time of his or her death, and the informed eulogizer can provide and find some much-needed comfort and guidance using language. While the challenge is great, the format and components of the eulogy offer direction and relief. You see, effective eulogies follow a very particular sequence in both preparation and delivery. As the decedent’s next of kin, clergy and undertakers each assume their traditional roles and responsibilities for observance of the death rituals, so can the eulogizer adhere to a long-established process of eulogy preparation and delivery.
Getting Prepared: Collect the Key Components
The eulogizer begins by gathering facts, acknowledging feelings and reviewing history as these are the three ingredients that combine to form an effective eulogy.
First, find the facts. List the facts of the death. Where did this happen? At what age did s/he pass? What circumstances surrounded the passing? As a eulogizer, you report the facts of the death.
Second, specify your sentiments. Identify two or three characteristics or personality traits about the decedent that account for your feelings. For instance, if you describe your late aunt as thoughtful and generous, note the illustration that she never once in twenty-eight years missed sending you a birthday card and it was each and every year the very first card and gift you received. If you describe your late great uncle as punctual to a fault, recall humorously the time that he arrived at the maternity ward before you did to deliver your child. As a eulogizer you share your own observations and sentiments as you reflect on the charms of the person lost.
Third, view the future through the lens of the past. Recall the personal history of the deceased, identifying the people s/he loved so you can mention them in the eulogy to offer the appropriate condolences. Reflect on the journey s/he took and the activities, roles and principles that characterized the decedent’s life. As a eulogizer your words move the mourners forward, pledging to keep alive the deceased’s values through specific acts.
Crafting the Eulogy: Rely on a Five-Step Format
Equipped with the facts about the death, feelings about the decedent and his or her personal history, you as the eulogizer are ready to weave them together in your own style and voice. The order and excerpts below will give you a model and feel for this.
1. Explicitly acknowledge the death. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to articulate the facts of the sad news unequivocally and early in the eulogy.
It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. This seems true today as we gather to pay our final respects to a very young man. It is indeed a mystery why and how a twenty-two year old athlete–a college basketball superstar–could collapse on the very court where he typically exhibited excellent health and a prowess far above his peers. And yet, this is precisely the mystery of the passing of Jay Grabor. This past Monday night, Jay collapsed and died during a home game. We cannot help but ask “Why?” and “How could such a thing happen?”
2. Reminisce fondly about the deceased. One delivers a eulogy if and only if s/he genuinely loved, respected and/or admired the decedent. Accordingly, you might recall the words of the deceased, perhaps a saying he or she often used. You might tell an anecdote, a story that reveals a key characteristic or personality trait you admired.
I have coached scores, perhaps hundreds, of young athletes in my years at this university and I can tell you that Jay was one in a million. I met none like him before his time and I don’t expect to find another soul like him ever again. His maturity was as deep as his talent. Once, I summoned a freshman teammate of Jay’s him to my office for a chat. There were problems between him and the other fellows and although things had improved a bit, I thought that a sit down might help things gel. Well, this young boy sits down and starts pouring his heart out about how rough he’s had it ’n all. And just as I’m about to give him some fatherly advice the kid says, “It was a good thing that Jay Grabor had me over to his dorm room for a sit down! Once he and I talked and he took me under his wing, things really started to improve!” My fellow mourners, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that. That’s the kind of mature and caring team player that Jay was. Actually, it wasn’t just the way he was with his teammates. It’s just the kind of guy he was. He was like that with the campus community at large.
3. Offer your condolences. A conscientious eulogizer recognizes that others are grieving as well.
While the loss of a son is unspeakable, while the loss of a brother is unbearable, while the loss of a grandson, nephew and all the other roles Jay played in his brief but vibrant life is tragic, know that your pain is felt by peoples near and far. We mourn with you on the campus and in the community and in your neighborhood and all the halls this treasured young man graced. Our memories are now your memories. We share them with you and we pray that in time they give you some measure of peace.
4. Reassure the mourners that the deceased will be remembered meaningfully. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to make a commitment to continue the efforts for which the deceased lived. These may be the continuation of the decedent’s work or the completion of plans to reach certain goals in the family or in the community.
A wise man wrote that, “true love is eternal.” And Jay Grabor truly loved the sport of basketball and the team he honored at the University of Southington. In Jay’s memory, this team shall go on. In Jay’s memory and for Jay’s memory this team shall prevail. He has forever changed us and it has been for the better. It is a change for the better of these players, for the better of us coaches and for the better of the sport of college basketball itself.
5. State a clear goodbye to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to do what may be too painful for other mourners to do and that is to specifically bid farewell to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to mark the departure from life of the person we knew in life.
In a penalty we do not understand, with a time out that comes out a lifetime a head of it’s time, we all as fans of Jay Grabor, bid farewell to him, a true champion.
Delivering for the Occasion: Lean In and Let Go
In sharing the stories, words and traits of the deceased, don’t shy away from material that will make you laugh and cry. It is okay to get emotional when delivering the eulogy. You won’t be alone. Others will be comforted that you share their many emotions and they will admire you for expressing them nonverbally as well as with words.
It is my wish that your need for this skill-set be minimal. It is my hope that when the need for it does arrive you are equipped with the know-how to guide you through the challenge with as much ease and confidence as such circumstances allow.