The material below is an extended version of the same material on the Quick Tips page. I’ve written a lot in this section, but if we’re working on a funeral together, I’ll be there to guide you through your unique situation.
If you’re delivering the eulogy, there’s another section for you under the Resources for Families menu on this website, but many elements of the section you’re reading now may also be helpful. A eulogy has more structure (youth, family, career, etc) and more of a quality of completeness to it. At funerals, some people don’t want to deliver the eulogy, but pay a personal tribute, and this section is for you. A tribute is often more free flowing. You might deliver personal stories or anecdotes, reflect on an aspect of your loved one’s character, speak of how they’ve sculpted your life or how they’ve inspired you for the future. In that sense, a tribute often writes itself. Once you begin, what you want to say often flows naturally onto the page or off the tongue on the day.
your notes: You might be comfortable with public speaking and therefore able to write a few notes to jog your memory and speak to these notes on the day. Or you might prefer the careful process of sculpting a full manuscript so that it comes out just as you’ve designed it. However, people often tell me that they can easily speak off the cuff in other circumstances, but heightened emotions on the day of the funeral prompt them to write their tribute word for word. On the day they might stick strictly to it, or add a few unscripted words if they’re feeling strong enough. Some people like the security of writing a full manuscript as well as rough notes so that they can use whichever suits them in the moment.
timing: If you’re speaking from notes, it’s worth rehearsing to get a clear feeling for how long your tribute is. Some people get a surprise on the day when they realise that their “five minute” tribute is in fact one minute or ten. More often, though, you won’t realise, but the audience will, which may be grating for you when after the service you discover that the reason people seemed less engaged after a while was because you spoke for 15 minutes without realising it. As a rule of thumb, we speak at 150-170 words per minute, so a five minute tribute will be 750-850 words. A good tribute is usually three to seven minutes, but that needs to be put in the context of the whole service. Funerals of 20-45 minutes often leave people “nourished”. Occasionally we push on towards an hour, but we’re always aware that after 45 minutes we can easily lose people. You might be one of two or one of six speakers. One tribute might be from a very close daughter and another from an acquaintance, so we always adjust with a little common sense.
coordinate: It’s worth sending a copy of your tribute to whoever’s organising the funeral and/or the other speakers so that everyone’s informed, coordinated and at ease. The funeral may be 40 concentrated minutes, but our preparation is often ten times that.
A funeral may seem like a formal occasion, but it’s easy to forget that it’s still a spoken occasion. Writing for listeners and writing for readers can be quite different arts. For example, if you read one of the stories in the Tales from the Podium section on this website, then compared it to exactly what I said on the day, the scripts would be quite different. Sometimes people translate the more formal atmosphere of a funeral into a language that’s more formal. However, a good eulogy or tribute actually comes across more like a chat over the dinner table. I recently heard veteran Australian journalist, Geraldine Doogue, speaking about one of her mentors who emphasised the importance of speaking to your audience as though you’re having a one-on-one chat. Ideally, this is also the atmosphere we create at a funeral. Amidst all the emotions coursing through you on the day of the funeral, this may be a tall order, but the key point to remember is that if you find yourself writing “George completed his education and commenced employment,” you might like to remember that despite the podium and microphone, everyday language helps us to connect with your tribute – “George finished school and began work.” Speaking your tribute aloud will help you keep it down to earth.
Those who use formal language may also be inclined to use excessive detail. For example, does everyone need to know that Sue and Bert were wed on a sunny Saturday afternoon on the 25th of September 1953 in St Monica’s Church on Plenty Rd, Bundoora? How about, “Sue married Bert in her early 20s.” I’ve noticed that those who use such detail are less likely to write about what lies beneath the surface. A funeral service occurs in such a constrained timeframe that I suggest dropping the detail so that you have more time to focus on matters of substance – your observations and reflections on character traits, relationships and all the intricacies that make our complex lives so fascinating.
Another common mistake is to create a tribute that mimics the eulogy and has more a time-based approach. For example, in 1954 Julie worked here, then bought her house there, then the first child was born, and so on. This is the task of the eulogist, unless you’ve been asked to deliver a section of the eulogy as well as give a personal tribute. For example, you may be the only work colleague speaking, so you’ve been asked to cover the deceased’s whole career. Even then, if you’ve read the Preparing the Eulogy section on this website, you’ll see that I suggest that even the eulogist steers clear of a strict timeline. The fullness of a human life will never fit into a funeral eulogy, so try to come to the heart of the matter and focus on key facts, your favourite memories, what you’ll miss, and so on.
Perhaps the most popular misconception about funerals is that we can only speak about positive things. Those of you who’ve done a funeral with me in the past will know that I’m a strong advocate first and foremost for the celebration that you want. However, if my inclination and past experience is of any interest to you, then you might be open to the idea that none of us are perfect, so a frank, but compassionate story is often better received than you may think. Two things create fertile ground for frankness. First, humour. Second, if the vast majority of those attending the funeral know about what we’re saying, then we’re not causing trouble by dropping a bombshell. For example, Grandpa’s secret fetish for “The Bold and the Beautiful” probably shouldn’t come to light if no one knew, but if it’s a poorly kept secret, then Grandpa’s fair game for a ribbing, I say. In fact, a eulogy for the sanctified person with no imperfections is likely to leave those attending the funeral only partly satisfied. There are a few exceptional people who inspire the rest of us, but most of us have a great deal to learn. In fact, a person’s tale of evolving skills and awareness can be the most fascinating thread in the tapestry of the eulogy.
The greatest caution I encounter when planning a funeral tends to arise when we’re reflecting on someone who suffered with serious physical and mental issues. As I discuss on the Personality Page on this website, would you walk away from a funeral with a sense of authenticity if we only spoke of easy and positive things for a person who struggled for many years with chronic arthritis or crippling depression? The most important thing to remember in these cases is that on the day of the funeral, speaking of challenges usually leads to a sense of admiration for the person for coping with their trials. Of course, these are subtle matters. If we’re preparing a funeral together, we’ll discuss your unique situation face-to-face to ensure that you’re happy with what’s said on the day.
If you’d like a hand to get started, here are some suggestions:
- The earlier you start, the more satisfied you’ll be with the final result. It’s astounding what sleeping on your tribute and viewing it with fresh eyes the next day can do.
- You could engage another set of “fresh eyes” and ask someone else to read or listen to your tribute. They might bring ideas and perspectives you hadn’t thought of.
- Describe the person in three to eight words (e.g. generous, joyful, cheeky) and tell stories and anecdotes that illustrate each of these qualities. If you need some prompts, you might like to choose some of the words from the Personality Page on the Resources for Families menu on this website. It’s often possible to write your whole tribute based on material connected to a few character traits.
- You could write a letter to your loved one. Once you’ve written “Dear Dad / Nana / Glenda / Bill”, for example, the rest is likely to flow. If you choose this approach, you’ll be speaking in a unique and powerful voice. That is, the eulogy and other tributes are likely to be spoken mostly in the third person – “he/she, him/her”, etc. If the eulogist knew the person they’re speaking about, they’ll also use some of the first person – “I, me, we, my, our”, etc. As a celebrant, I make a point of using little, if any, of the first person, as the focus isn’t on me, but the person we’re celebrating. If you choose a letter format, you’ll be using first person, as well as a the more immediate voice of the second person – “you, your, yours”. That is, you’ll be speaking directly to the person who’s passed away rather than to the people in the room. This can be a powerful device, partly as it suggests that your loved one lives on. But remember that this “powerful device” can also make the experience considerably more emotional for you.
- You might prefer to speak about how the person who’s passed away has influenced your life, character, values or outlook.
- You could speak about their legacy – how their deeds in life will continue to mould the lives of those who survive them.
- You could speak about what you enjoyed most or will miss most.
- You could retell a story that the deceased often enjoyed telling themselves.
- Some people find it useful to use a “stream of consciousness” approach (It worked for The Beatles.) and give yourself five minutes to write down everything you can think of about that person. Looking over it later will often make it clear to you what your focus or theme will be.
- You might focus on what was special or unique about that person.
Grief and Nerves
Many people tell me that they’re worried about coping with their grief and/or nerves on the day. If that’s you, the following ideas may be helpful:
- The first tip I usually give people may seem strange, but when you’re coping with tears and nerves in front of a hundred people, it often makes perfect sense! Wriggle your toes. Curiously enough, it’s also said to work for seasickness. As far as I can discern, this seems to be a device to bring you back into the moment. When you’re grieving or nervous, you’re caught in your thoughts. The feet are your lowest extremity, so wriggling your toes can help you to come back to your surroundings. Feeling more grounded, your shoulders will relax and drop, your breathing and voice will deepen, your knees will unlock and your natural poise and grace will return!
- Remember that many people in the room are likely to love you very much, and those who aren’t speaking are probably admiring the fact that you’re doing something that they wouldn’t dream of.
- Some people say that you should avoid eye contact, but I find the opposite to be true. Once you connect with individual eyes in the room, a sense of control may return to you. It may help you with what I described in the “Common Mistakes” section above, to speak as though you’re having a one-on-one chat.
- A funeral is a unique setting, compared with other spoken occasions such as lectures or stand-up comedy. People attending a funeral are often immersed in their own emotions, but also unsure how much to outwardly express themselves, especially through laughter. After the funeral, people often tell me how much they enjoyed the eulogy or how funny a particular story was; and yet, from the podium, that’s often not clear at all. As a general rule of thumb, expect nothing from a funeral audience, but know that inwardly they’re likely to be much more engaged with you than you can see.
- If you’re unsure whether or not to speak on the day, you could write your tribute and have a backup person who can take over if you need a hand. It may be a family member, friend, or your celebrant. It’s worth remembering, however, that if you suspect that you won’t make it to the podium, ten minutes written by you, but delivered by someone else, will be much less meaningful. If you’re handing it over, up to 4 minutes will be well received.
I’ve said a great deal in this section, but I trust that it will help you craft a speech that creates a heartfelt and memorable tribute to someone you loved dearly, or at least a key figure in your own life story.