Delivering the Speech of Their Lives

In the natural cycle of life, we all may find ourselves needing to write or deliver RIP - Rest in Peace - written on the roada eulogy for clients or a loved one.

Writing a eulogy is similar in many respects to crafting other special occasion speeches, but delivering a eulogy or coaching a client to deliver one presents unique challenges. Done well, a eulogy can be the best speech about the deceased’s life – and your best speech as well.

Writing a Eulogy

Capture their spirit, not their history – Those attending a memorial service range from the closest family members to those who never met the deceased but are dear friends of a child or spouse. A eulogy should capture the spirit of the deceased for his or her loved ones and introduce the person’s vitality and specialness to those further removed. Describe what the person was like – what made him or her memorable and lovable – rather than presenting a detailed life history.

Symbols and structure provide context – As in any speech, symbols and structure carry the storyline and provide a memorable framework for understanding the person. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, in his eulogy for publisher Philip Merrill, used the persona of “skipper” to capture Merrill’s spirit, leadership, and love of the sea.

I focused on two key qualities of my father – his optimism and his unselfishness. In his eulogy for a friend, business colleague, and Marine colonel, Ralph Shrader, Chairman & CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton captured the deceased’s enduring presence by pointing out that he was still very much with his family and friends, he had simply “retired from active duty.”

Stories bring them back to life – Tell stories about the deceased – with enough detail to bring them back to life for those who were ‘there,’ and to paint a picture for those who weren’t. These stories will be the images that live on in the minds and hearts of those present. Stories provide the proof-points to illustrate the qualities of a person’s life and spirit.

Look for their words and inspiration Funeral flowers on a tomb Favorite quotes, scripture readings, sports heroes, and even newspaper clippings from the deceased can be a wonderful source of material that brings their living voice to help comfort those gathered and grieving.

If you don’t feel you can find the words yourself, then search for quotes and stories that capture the essence of the deceased. A friend found a newspaper clipping on his mother’s desk by Edgar A. Guest that his sister read at the memorial service.  Titled, “Miss me, but let me go,” it provided solace and comfort and a way forward for loved ones.

Miss Me But Let Me Go
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me,
Why cry for a soul set free.
Miss me a little – but not too long,
And not with your head bowed low.
Remember the love that we once shared.
Miss me – but let me go.
For this is a journey that we all must take.
It’s all part of the Master’s plan,
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick of heart,
Go to the friends we know.
And bury your sorrow in doing good deeds.
Miss me, but let me go.

Candor is comforting – Every full life has its challenges, ranging from illness to business and personal set-backs, to legal problems. Dealing gently but forthrightly with these troubling times provides comfort to those gathered and credibility to the tribute.

I dealt with my father’s physical and mental frailty in old age by linking his lifelong unselfishness with my mothers’ unselfishness in caring for him.

Delivering a Eulogy

More than any other speech, delivering a eulogy for a loved one is emotional and daunting. The following advice from coaches has helped me and those for whom I’ve written eulogies.

Practice – Practice out loud until you can deliver the entire eulogy without being overcome by emotion. Practice first in a private space like a bedroom or car – and then practice at least the opening lines in the church or other venue where you’ll be speaking.

Prepare — logistics are  are important. The Newman Group has created a large-print format for blocking speeches in phrases, the “SpeechRight™ Technique ” It’s helpful for the delivery of any remarks, but especially for those  in emotional circumstances and dim light, and through moist eyes. They place emphasis on preparation such as coordinating with other speakers if there is more than one, centering your body, and taking a deep breath before starting to speak which makes a noticeable positive difference.

PostponeI’ve found it helpful to focus on the task at hand and to postpone emotion. Rather than telling yourself, “don’t cry,” focus on a positive idea such as “affirm” or “celebrate,” and understand that you have a job to do now – delivering a strong and memorable eulogy. It’s fine to get emotional later at the graveside or at home with the family.

PostscriptBring copies of the eulogy for family members who ask for it after the service.  Elderly relatives often don’t have e-mail, and will cherish a hard copy. At my father’s funeral, on the way into the church, I gave a text copy to his best friend who is hard of hearing so he could more easily follow my words.

The passing of a loved one is a stressful experience, but an inspiring eulogy will help family and friends to forget their grief, if only momentarily, as they are reminded of why the deceased was so important in their lives.

delivdery a eulogy speechMarie Lerch is President of Executive Scribe, LLC and formerly Vice President of Marketing & Communications for the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.  Many of her speeches have appeared in Vital Speeches of the Day and other publications. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in “Speechwriter’s Newsletter.” 


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