Most people will get through their entire lives without ever having delivered a eulogy. And they will be grateful for having dodged the bullet. Most people dread both public speaking and emotionally charged situations like funerals so this combination is especially tough. Most people doubt their ability to hold it all together. They wish to avoid embarrassing themselves.
Even with the Internet most people don’t have access to the words, the quotations that will elevate the adequate to the memorable. Because memorable is what both the survivors and the deceased person deserve.
Recently, my mom asked me to write and deliver the eulogy for her second husband and my stepfather, George. Luckily by that time I had already created the spray of flowers for the casket and was able to do it. Not that I would ever refuse such a request; because as difficult as it is, it’s also an honour and a privilege.
My process is quite simple; not easy, but simple. The work usually begins with a prayer. I pace through the house. Fragments of sentences begin forming in my head. I try to establish a theme or a connecting thread. I may reread previous eulogies I’ve written. I gather my books of quotations and flip to the pages marked with flags. I scroll through documents in my computer.
Finally it’s time to begin. Writer’s block is a luxury that no eulogist can afford. The challenge of capturing the essence of a life and doing it justice in five minutes of text is huge.
I’ve heard some terrible eulogies and have strong opinions of what doesn’t belong. There is no need to retell, year by year, everything that happened in the life of an octogenarian. Or talk about the price of gasoline or bread when he was young. Or list every volunteer job she did in countless organizations. Or have two or three or more grandkids at the mic taking turns reading a paragraph each. Or telling a funny story that isn’t. Or witnessing the miracle of death that turns a scoundrel into a saint. This is not the time for hypocrisy or hyperbole. A well-written, well-delivered eulogy captivates and informs and is over too soon. Those that aren’t seem interminable and are difficult to sit through.
The document will remain open on my computer for days, because inevitably I’ll be back tinkering with it. When I think it may be done I begin reading it aloud, over and over again. There is no better way to detect awkward phrasing or sections that could trip me up in the delivery. Each rehearsal makes it more likely that I will deliver it strongly and without breaking down. I time myself. The goal is being able to deliver a smooth and meaningful glimpse into the life of the deceased and bring comfort to those left behind.
As hard as all this is, it’s also very rewarding when the loved ones and others thank you for a job well done. That alone is reason enough to say yes when asked, from where I sit.
Hazel Anaka’s first novel is Lucky Dog. Visit her website for more information or follow her on Twitter @anakawrites..