How to Write a Eulogy: Principles and Practical Tips

Christopher Witt —  October 28, 2015 know how to write a eulogy, you first have to know what a eulogy is and, more importantly, what its purpose is.

A eulogy is a short speech delivered in a memorial service in memory of someone who has recently died.

How to Write a Eulogy: Principles

Principle 1: A eulogy is a short speech.

In general, short speeches are better than long ones: more engaging, more focused, less apt to lose the audience’s attention. There’s so much going on in a memorial service (see below) and people are already coping with a mix of feelings. You owe it to them to keep your eulogy brief and to the point.

Principle 2: A eulogy is part of a larger event: a memorial service.

In addition to the eulogy, there may be scriptural or other inspirational readings, poems, prayers, music and songs, flowers, and in some cases elaborate ritual elements.

A eulogy serves a specific and limited purpose within the service. (More about that later.) A eulogy doesn’t do all the work.

Principle 3: A eulogy is a remembrance of someone who has died.

Originally, a eulogy was meant to praise the dead: to extol their virtues and accomplishments. (The word eulogy comes from the Greek, meaning “good words.”)

Many eulogists still limit themselves to saying only good things about the deceased. But doing so runs the risk of presenting an incomplete and, at times, distorted portrayal of the person.

A eulogy shares memories of the deceased, allowing others to tap into their own memories and, hopefully, to come to terms with them. Those memories may not all be positive or happy, at least not for everyone. What matters is telling the truth as kindly as possible.

How to Write a Eulogy: Tips

Tip 1: Write out your eulogy.

Writing it out will help you stay focused, find exactly the right image or phrase, and tell a story in the most powerful way. It will also be your back up in case you get overwhelmed with emotions as you’re speaking.

Tip 2: Tell a story.

The best way to evoke memories is by telling stories. Otherwise, you’ll be reduced to mouthing platitudes.  Don’t say, “He was a good father to me.” Tell a story of an incident that shows him being a good father.

Tip 3: Be kind.

The goal of a eulogy is to talk about the deceased in a way that allows the living to come to make peace with their own memories and feelings. Realize that different people may have wildly different experiences of the deceased and of his or her death.

Tell the truth, as you know it. Don’t make sweeping judgments, as if you know how everyone is or should be feeling. And do it kindly. Be kindest of all to those who are most in grief.

Tip 4: It’s okay to cry.

It means you’re being real, which is a good thing. Take a breath. Allow the tears to flow. And turn back to your script.

Tip 5: Humor is allowed.

Jokes rarely work in a speech of any sort. They’re always out of place in a eulogy. But humor is a different matter. Humor doesn’t make people laugh, it allows them to laugh or, at least, to smile. Which can be a good thing at a memorial service.

How to Write a Eulogy: One More Principle

Principle 4: Writing and delivering a eulogy does you good.

Being asked to give a eulogy is an honor. It’s also a responsibility. But most of all it’s a way of sorting through your own memories, impressions, thoughts, feelings, and unfinished business about someone you loved.

What’s your experience writing or delivering a eulogy? What insights would you add?

See also Should You Write Out Your Speech.

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes at Flickr.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

3 responses to How to Write a Eulogy: Principles and Practical Tips

  1. Can I add an extra tip – which may not apply to many people. When I was responsible for dad’s eulogy I did some special preparation. I sat with dad with open coffin the day before the funeral – just me and him for an hour. I thanked him for being my father and all the love he had given me through the years. I cried and called him Daddy for the first time in 40 years. I kissed his forehead and said my personal goodbye. It meant that the following day I could be there for the whole family, serving my father and not be too overwhelmed by my personal loss. I cried a little during the ceremony but that time with him the day before meant I was a lot calmer. So do some deep grieving before the funeral if you can.

    • John,

      Thank you for such a moving and insightful response.

      You’re right. People called upon to give a eulogy may better serve themselves and the people they’re addressing by doing some of their own grieving prior to the service. I spoke at my mother’s funeral, and I wish I had done some of what you did with your father in advance.

      The problem I’m facing now — what got me started on this post — is this. I’m the emcee at a family gathering (not a funeral, not a memorial service) for a man who was well-regarded by some (his cronies and distant relatives) and negatively remembered (to put it kindly) by his immediately family members.

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