By Tim Hayes
A great friend recently had the heavy honor of delivering the eulogy for a family member, and asked me for some guidance. My advice was brief and direct: “A eulogy is no time to scrimp on the superlatives,” and, “Pick a spot above people’s heads to focus on, or otherwise you may not get through it.” Unfortunately, I knew the value of that advice from a number of first-hand experiences.
Crafting a eulogy is unlike any other form of speechwriting. It must be respectful but not cold, insightful but not intrusive, emotional but not exploitative. Its delivery requires an enormous level of internal strength and focus, but with enough shared feeling to truly honor the person being celebrated.
One of the greatest challenges of my professional career came when six employees of the company I worked for were lost in an airplane crash, and it fell to me to write the entire script for a memorial service to be attended by the victims’ families and company employees. Simple, heartfelt, hopeful language containing specific references to each victim’s personal and professional lives carried the day, but getting to that point just about took everything out of me.
That artful blending of simplicity of feeling, heartfelt emotion, and hopeful inspiration marks the great eulogies, and we will hear more of this during the memorial services for Sen. Edward Kennedy this weekend. Here are just a few examples of stirring eulogies from recent memory:
“Above all we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister – the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana, whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds.”
– From the eulogy for Princess Diana by her brother Charles Spencer, September 1997
“And as the last journey of this faithful pilgrim took him beyond the sunset, and as heaven’s morning broke, I like to think — in the words of Bunyan — that `all the trumpets sounded on the other side.’”
– From the eulogy for President Ronald Reagan by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, June 2004
“Like the sun, she bathed us in her warm glow. Now that the sun has set and the cool of the evening has come, some of the warmth we absorbed is flowing back towards her.”
– From the eulogy for the Queen Mother by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, April 2002
“He was lost on that troubled night, but we will always wake for him, so that his time, which was not doubled, but cut in half, will live forever in our memory, and in our beguiled and broken hearts. We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.”
– From the eulogy for John F. Kennedy Jr. by Sen. Edward Kennedy, July 1999
Writing and delivering eulogies is indeed a heavy honor, but one that should be embraced for the truly unique and incredibly wonderful chance to commemorate and celebrate the richness and reward of an individual’s life.
Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting