YOU wouldn’t think writing a eulogy would be such a tough
Delivering a eulogy -- now, that’s another matter. I couldn’t possibly do that. I verged on sobs over the silly love story in the raunchy new comedy Bruno, which culminates in two badly dressed men kissing in a wrestling ring. Public speaking is for brave, steady souls, not the sort of person who starts blubbering during a movie trailer because it’s obvious that in Marley & Me, the dog will eventually bite the dust.
That’s why Stanley will deliver the eulogy I have composed, which, as I write this, is a work in progress.
It’s for my mother. I was extremely close to her, and I thought I had written something that captured her impish wit and devilish attitude to life. So I sent off the first draft to a few different family members for their opinions. Stanley was positive. My sister felt it was too long, and she wasn’t thrilled by one anecdote that had my parents gently poking fun at their own mothers and their Pinter-esque conversations. She feared it might offend other relatives. My documentarian brother-in-law felt the eulogy should focus on intimate memories and frank emotions rather than the pranks Mum played. He thought some of those might raise an eyebrow or two.
I considered this viewpoint, but then I couldn’t imagine writing a eulogy that would focus on my deepest feelings.
But was I misguided? Would I be letting Mum down, and boring those assembled, with the eulogy I had written? I decided to consult the Internet to see how long a eulogy should be, and what its focus.
The best example of a memorable eulogy one site came up with was the tribute to Princess Diana, delivered by her brother. You probably remember it -- he described her as “the most hunted person of the modern age.” He also threw in a hint that the Royal Family had let her down. Earl Charles Spencer officially made Diana a victim, which may or may not have been a true interpretation but was one he seemed to sincerely believe at the time.
Thankfully, my eulogy does not need to find blame or bemoan tragedy. Although it’s extremely sad to lose one’s parent in her late 70s, it is in the natural order of things. So, with nobody to accuse of wrongdoing, what purpose should the eulogy serve?
A eulogy is defined online as a “formal expression of praise for someone who has died recently.” One online expert in the genre explains further that it should not be like a curriculum vitae, listing in detail the person’s history and achievements. This is good news because apparently eulogies are supposed to be fairly brief. Imagine trying to map out and assess another person’s life -- especially the life of somebody so fundamental to your own -- in three to five minutes.
But no, that’s not the idea. A eulogy is supposed to be a personal tribute about what the dearly departed has meant to the speaker/writer. I wonder at this interpretation, too, however. When a deceased parent had three children, what gives one of them (me, in this case) the right to get up and talk about what that parent meant to her alone? On the other hand, are three entire eulogies necessary, or five, or nine, depending on the number of progeny?
My concept was to try to paint a picture of this person, my mother, and her dearest qualities, which to me were her humour, her intelligence, her kindness and her generosity. Through anecdotes, I tried to show the kind of person she was, and what I most admired about her.
I remember one funeral where I was impressed by the eulogy. It was made by my husband’s uncle, who spoke beautifully about his mother. One of the best things he did was acknowledge that she was often quite a difficult person. I think hinting that the deceased had the odd peccadillo is a good thing -- it’s not like death erases all memory of human foibles. It’s not just our strengths but our weaknesses that distinguish us.
I also recall several funerals where the people who spoke about the departed were clergymen who clearly had had no relationship with the women who had died. It was painful to hear them use (and mispronounce) names for the loved ones that nobody had ever employed, or suggest they were passionately religious, when I knew they were not.
I don’t think clergymen should guess at the character of the person in the casket. If they don’t know anything about her, they should simply touch on a few inarguable details of her life, provided by her family, and then talk to the mourners in general terms about grieving and how to get through it. A disingenuous eulogy is worse than no eulogy at all.
On the other hand, a great speech at a funeral, whether it’s the eulogy or not, can have boundless value. I heard about one funeral for a teenager who had killed himself, where the minister was speaking to a crowd largely made up of shocked and horrified young adults. He focused on the fact that suicide is never the answer and that people in crisis must never give up hope. Just being told about that message, delivered to the people who most needed to hear it, touched me to the core.
There will be several people speaking at my mum’s memorial. My aunts are going to say something. My sister plans to recite some funny poems Mum wrote for her when she was young. My brother will discuss how she welcomed her children’s friends. My brother-in-law will talk about her as a bridge between two families.
And I, the eldest kid, what will I do? What can I write about somebody so close to me that she might just as well be myself? I can only tell the stories she liked to tell, in as close a way as possible to the way she told them, and hope my spokesman, Stanley, gets the inflections right.
I guess I just don’t want to sum up my mother as if she is some fait accompli. I want to feel like she is still there -- the beloved guest of honour at the saddest kind of party.