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Stand and deliver

Ask people for the situations they find most challenging and public speaking or attending the funeral of a close friend or family member are likely to be mentioned. It’s no surprise then that being asked to speak at a funeral or making the decision give a eulogy can seem like an incredibly difficult task and a huge responsibility. However, in so many ways, it is also an honour and it's something you'll want to get 'right' for that person. 

There is no obligation to speak at a funeral and, if it’s a close family member, then whoever is conducting the service for you – whether that’s a church minister or a celebrant - will be more than happy to sit with you in the days leading up to funeral and learn about that special person. They will then craft some words for you, based on your memories, which they can deliver.  Alternatively, you could write some words and the celebrant or a friend/family member could read them out – making clear they are your words.

Some of our families nominate a ‘stand in’ who is ready in the wings. So, if you simply feel you can’t speak on the day, they are ready to read your words for you or even take over part-way, if you feel overwhelmed.

The word eulogy comes from two Classical Greek words: eu, meaning ‘well’ or ‘true’ and logia, ‘words’ or ‘text’. According to Andrew Motion, former poet laureate, who wrote a eulogy for The Queen Mother, among others, a eulogy ‘might move us to tears, but it will start to heal us too’.

There is no correct tone for a eulogy – it very much depends on the person you are speaking about. If that person was quite serious or formal, then the eulogy should reflect that. If they were the life and soul of a party – then something lighter would work.

Here are some tips: 

  • If you are the only person speaking – then make the talk an overview, so it feels as inclusive as possible. Chat with other friends and family members to collect some of their memories. You’ll probably discover things you didn’t know before.

  • If there are a few people speaking, then you could include more of your own memories of that person. 

  • Don’t turn it into a long list of life events from birth onwards. Pick out some key moments or one particular story.Less is more. It’ll take you around one minute to read 100 words and, even if you’re the only person speaking, then five minutes or a little more is probably long enough.

  • Don’t be too sentimental or romantic – be honest. If your relative could be a little grumpy sometimes or shouted at the TV, then don’t feel you have to gloss over that.

  • However experienced you are at public speaking, guests are not expecting an Oscar winning speech and they will understand if you falter or forget something.

  • Speak slowly and, even if you think you don’t think you’ll need your notes, keep a copy of them in your hand.

  • Practice your speech out loud before the service as many times as you can. You’ll start to notice how it flows and if you need to smooth out any rough edges.

  • Make sure you know when you’re delivering your eulogy during the service, so you’re not taken by surprise. The celebrant will normally introduce you and welcome you to the front. It’s also good to find a seat near the front and at the end of a row, so you’re not having to climb over people when it’s your turn to speak.

  • Also, ask if you’re going to have a microphone. If you’re speaking from a lecturn in a chapel or in a hotel room, you probably will. If you’re in a village hall or somebody’s home, you might not.

  • There might be an opportunity to practice in the venue beforehand. If it’s in a church, the minister should be fine with you popping in and familiarising yourself with the venue.

  • End on a high note. Finishing with a favourite anecdote or saying will give people something special to go away with – it might bring a smile to everyone’s face or a tear to the eye, but make it memorable.

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