First time Eulogist. Helpful hints?
November 4, 2013 1:21 PM   Subscribe

A very very dear friend died unexpectedly recently and I have been asked by the family to be among the non-family members who will speak at his memorial service. I've only ever spoken at my mother's memorial service, and I cheated by reading her favorite psalm. I know some things to do and some not to do, but I think I need more thoughts from the hivemind.

The family has broken up the service with speakers from various times in his life, which I only found out quite recently -- until I saw the program I was floundering around feeling like an imposter because I've only known him 6 years.

I have two readings, one quite short from a book he loved (we shared a love of books that had far-reaching consequences), and one somewhat longer. The longer one is Mary Oliver's poem "When Death Comes," which to me really describes how my friend lived his life -- like a bride married to amazement, like a bridegroom taking the world into his arms.

I'm not very good at public speaking, although I'm pretty good at talking about grief and loss on a one-on-one basis.

I know certain wise rules, such as: write it down, practice, speak from the heart, don't ramble, don't lie, be appropriate.

But we're having the memorial service at a (very large) bar & restaurant, and he and I met at another bar/restaurant where the service/wake will continue after the main event. So I think that "appropriate" can be a little less reverent than is often the case. Like when I told him last year I was trying to work on a six-pack for my abs, and he said "I'm working on a keg." I bet that's not original but he's the only person I ever heard say it. I kind of want to mention it in this crowd.

I think my problem here is that I don't know what words to glue the readings together with. I'm obviously not telling people who he was or what he was like, because half the people there will have known him for decades. I'm really only saying what he meant to me in the thought that by expressing what I feel I might sort of express for someone else the feelings they haven't put words to. But I don't know whether what I feel is even applicable to most people.

Whenever someone is suffering with grief, I always compare grief/loss to two things. The first is a scar. A scar comes from a wound that is deeply painful for a long time, and which eventually, after the course of some time, stops being painful and starts being a simple reminder of something past. It will always be a reminder of pain, but it might not itself hurt eventually. But (and this is the second thing I always talk about) great love means great grief. Only the people who avoid love can avoid grief. So often when my younger friends are struggling to stop feeling grief over a lost relationship, I tell them that I wouldn't think they were human if they didn't hurt over a lost love. And that's the kind of thing I'm telling myself now -- that for all the pain his loss brings me, I wouldn't consider, even for an instant, trading it for a life in which this pain didn't exist because I didn't know and love him.

So I don't know if that's just really off, or if that's the kind of thing you can say at a memorial service without sounding condescending or self-righteous.

And the most important memories I have of him, if I have to single out a few as being really essential, were moments in the last couple of days of his life, or the gentleness with which he took his last breath. And THAT I don't think anyone wants to hear about. I talk about death way too much already.

Plus I come from a Buddhist perspective, and he totally embodied this Buddhist notions of lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and compassion, and he really fully lived every moment, without having to practice meditation in order to get there. But I don't know my audience at all, and I don't know whether it's even appropriate to say anything like that.

I think I'm caught between not wanting to say things that are so specific to me that other people would be offended or bored, versus not wanting so say things that are so obvious that other people will be bored -- or that others will have already said in the service.

Can you help me with (a) ways to think about what I'm doing to free my mind to compose this, (b) hints about being one speaker out of many at a memorial service, and (c) whether Mary Oliver is too pedestrian for a memorial service (some of his family members are insanely brilliant and they have an inflated view of my intelligence because my friend thought so highly of me, and I don't want them to be rolling their eyes while I speak), and (d) anything you think, based on what I've written, would be helpful to me.

Thanks so much for your help.
posted by janey47 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
All of your instincts are great. You can say any and all of the above, including Mary Oliver, if it fits with what you know of him.

"he totally embodied this Buddhist notions of lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and compassion, and he really fully lived every moment, without having to practice meditation in order to get there. But I don't know my audience at all, and I don't know whether it's even appropriate to say anything like that."

I don't care what tradition they are from, it is absolutely appropriate to say that your friend embodied loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, compassion and fully lived every moment. Your friend sounds like he was a wonderful man and I am so sorry for your loss.

.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:28 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


No one will roll their eyes at a funeral, so don't worry about being judged or whatnot. People are too busy grieving to notice cliches; and they become meaningful in this instance anyway.

Give some background, since you are a "new" friend. I'm so and so, we met with [funny anecdote] and this is how we became friends.

Then talk about your experience with him. What you did, how you saw him and how you felt in his presence. Honestly what you've written here is great. Everyone understands lovingkindness and chances are other people noticed this about him also.

Funerals are for the living, to remember and to say goodbye. Don't worry about tailoring it to your audience, but I wouldn't get pedantic or philosophical, as the Buddhist / spiritual person in you might feel like doing.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2013


Don't worry about making a grand philosophical speech - just talk about why you cared about your friend. Tell stories about why he was a great person, and about the impact he had on your life. My dear grandmother passed away last month and my cousin's eulogy was the most touching part of the funeral, because he talked about all of the things that made her who she was, and how in turn those things had made him into the person he grew up to be. Everybody at the funeral will know the deceased, but nobody will know him quite like you do - so share that. Share the person you knew and loved. Nobody is going to be bored by heartfelt stories of someone they cared about; those people will be there to remember their friend or family member. Anything you share that's from the heart will be well received.
posted by something something at 1:35 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tell a story. Tell another story. Give a little personal testimony about how he helped/influenced you.. Tell another story.

Really, it's all about the stories.
posted by beagle at 1:38 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


But I don't know my audience at all, and I don't know whether it's even appropriate to say anything like that."

People are asked to eulogize someone either because they can best convey a universally held opinion of the deceased, or because they can convey unique things about them that not everyone may have known. The family asked you to do the latter, to speak about your friend's life & person in the last half-decade. So it's not about who you're speaking to, it's who you're speaking about.
posted by headnsouth at 1:41 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree with Beagle. Tell a story that shows him being what you admired/enjoyed/valued about him.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:54 PM on November 4, 2013


I spoke at a memorial service last week -- the first time I've ever done that, but I am so very glad I did. I am a terrible public speaker, but I made it through.

I wouldn't do a reading unless it was a reading that you know he loved.

The speakers at the service tended to follow a pattern: tell a few personal, heartfelt, related stories that not everyone at the service would have known about, and then a little bit about the impact he made on the speaker. Folks seemed appreciative to know more about our loved one. Guests who hadn't known him well said they were able to get to know him through our stories.

I found that I wasn't able to tell the most important stories just yet, because it was too close, and too soon, and those were too much for me to talk about. But it was easy for me to talk about some things that happened years ago that shaped our relationship and gave me perspective.

One thing to note: Getting up to speak can be a really scary thing to do and everyone knows it. You get full credit just for standing up and sharing his memory, regardless of the actual words you say. I'm glad you're doing this.
posted by mochapickle at 2:02 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry your friend died, and happy that you meant so much to him that his family are giving you a place in his final event.

I'm really only saying what he meant to me in the thought that by expressing what I feel I might sort of express for someone else the feelings they haven't put words to. But I don't know whether what I feel is even applicable to most people.

This is the part I wouldn't worry about. You are just talking about what he meant to you, because that's all you can do. The people listening will find their own comfort in what you say, because grief is a shared experience. You don't need to specifically phrase things so that the family will respect your intellect, or be comforted by something you say, or find meaning. That will happen but it shouldn't be your focus.

Like you, one thing I say a lot is "grief is the price we pay for love." If that sentiment is important to you, say it, and don't worry about being condescending - you're not being. If the poem you've chosen speaks to your sense of your friend, read it. You can only speak from your heart. If he was full of lovingkindness and compassion then tell them that, because you are truly honouring his memory. If the anecdote about the six pack/keg sums him up, say it. They'll recognise his humour, I'm sure.

In fact, that's how I'd approach this - what would your friend advise you to do? Tell you to get over yourself with a laugh? Kindly tell you just to Be and not to worry? Tell you that you're great and whatever you say will be perfect? Only you know, because your relationship with him was special and personal, and that's why whatever you say will be meaningful. On the day, imagine saying it to him, and not about him. Look after yourself.
posted by billiebee at 2:09 PM on November 4, 2013


You have already written your remarks.

" The longer one is Mary Oliver's poem "When Death Comes," which to me really describes how my friend lived his life -- like a bride married to amazement, like a bridegroom taking the world into his arms." Read the poem.
Add: he totally embodied this Buddhist notions of lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and compassion, and he really fully lived every moment, without having to practice meditation in order to get there.
Work the "keg" into your remarks.
He had a sense of humor: I told him last year I was trying to work on a six-pack for my abs, and he said "I'm working on a keg." I bet that's not original but he's the only person I ever heard say it. I kind of want to mention it in this crowd.
Judging by your post, you will give a fine eulogy. Your friend is lucky to have you.
posted by Cranberry at 2:41 PM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am a United Methodist pastor, and as such, I speak at funerals rather often. When I am preparing a eulogy, I always look for what I call the "refrains" in the life of the deceased, and then I look for the points of intersection between those refrains and what that person professed to believe.

So then, I ask myself questions like these:

- What values did this person profess which were evidenced in the witness of this person's life?

- What, then, can we learn from how this person lived their values?

- How has this person affected the lives of those of us who knew him or her?

- How can we, going forward, reflect in our lives the good that we saw lived out in the life of the deceased?

So then, I try to celebrate the good in the narrative of this person's life, the good that will be easily recognized by those who knew him/her, and to give everyone some kind of takeaway from the life of the deceased, or to put it another way, an awareness of something in that person which lives in each of us that we can rejoice in and celebrate in our own lives going forward.

All the best to you.
posted by 4ster at 3:52 PM on November 4, 2013 [18 favorites]


The "lesson/value for our own lives going forward" is one nice way to wrap your thoughts.

But if you are finding it hard to do that, to find a single abstract principle to focus on, remember you have something that will be very precious to the people who have known your friend longer: stories they have never heard. Even small stories that will make people laugh and say "oh, that's him all over". Missing someone is partly being sad that you don't get any new experiences with them, and hearing stories can provide a little boost of that "new experiences with him" feeling. Don't feel that you must encapsulate your friend's whole being; the small everyday stories are very valuable by themselves.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:31 PM on November 4, 2013


If their are multiple speakers, several of who knew the speakers long in advance of you, I would suggest keeping your remarks brief. And while readings are wonderful, anyone can read them. Best is speaking from the heart. If you really want to do a reading, come up with a 5-10 sentence introduction to the piece that explains what it meant to the deceased, and then read it.
posted by tk at 7:07 PM on November 4, 2013


I'm not religious but I think your notes about him embodying buddhism are very touching.
posted by radioamy at 7:50 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry about your friend.

What you say here:

Whenever someone is suffering with grief, I always compare grief/loss to two things. The first is a scar. A scar comes from a wound that is deeply painful for a long time, and which eventually, after the course of some time, stops being painful and starts being a simple reminder of something past. It will always be a reminder of pain, but it might not itself hurt eventually. But (and this is the second thing I always talk about) great love means great grief. Only the people who avoid love can avoid grief. So often when my younger friends are struggling to stop feeling grief over a lost relationship, I tell them that I wouldn't think they were human if they didn't hurt over a lost love. And that's the kind of thing I'm telling myself now -- that for all the pain his loss brings me, I wouldn't consider, even for an instant, trading it for a life in which this pain didn't exist because I didn't know and love him.

sounds very appropriate for a eulogy. Since you've got two points above (like a scar and only those who can avoid love can avoid grief) and two readings, I wonder if you can somehow connect the two - one reading per point.
posted by lyssabee at 6:22 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry about your loss. You're a good egg for offering service to your friend's family and his memory.

You won't be self-conscious because no one is thinking about you: they're thinking about him, and their own grief over his absence! If you can help shape their emotions in a positive way by sharing stories, then that act will be a final gift to him. Just get through it. :7)

Your lines beginning "Whenever someone is suffering with grief…" are amazing, and exactly fitting. Get up, introduce yourself, share those words, and then move on with "And now I want to share a couple of moments with Friend that really stand out. We met…" and so on.

You'll do it, you'll be awesome, and that act of sharing will help temper your pain.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:58 AM on November 5, 2013


Here it is, for what it's worth. It's somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

That's "When Death Comes," by Mary Oliver. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, because if there were ever a person who didn’t need that reminder, it was Tim. Was there ever a time when you said, hey Tim, let’s do this! And he didn’t say, you bet! And I’ll drive! He modeled what I strive for -- a full life, lived fully, without regrets. I work at it and think about it hard. And he just did it and made it look so natural.

A bride married to amazement, a bridegroom taking the world into his arms.

There’s a Buddhist notion of certain qualities that are worth cultivating for the mind to rest in. They call them the “Divine Abodes.” Lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. They say that sympathetic joy -- taking joy in the happiness of others -- is the hardest to cultivate. But not for Tim. Tim took more joy in other people’s happiness than most people take in their own.

We all know how proud he was of his nieces & nephews, and just how delighted he was when anything good happened to them. I remember the first play we went to together -- it was Zayd’s Magic Forest Farm, up in Marin. Tim could barely contain himself. And when Rachel published Big Girl Small, he was so excited to see what a terrific writer she is -- he made sure I had a copy and he said to me more than once, “How does she writes something so different from her own experience? Amazing.” I’m proud of them, too, because of Tim’s delight, and I’ve never even met them.

Sympathetic joy. The bridegroom taking the world into his arms. I mean, it permeated everything. Last year, I was working hard on losing weight and he complimented me and I said, yeah, I’m working on a six-pack. He said, I’m working on a keg. So happy, so genuine.

And because he was so genuine, when he was pissed, you knew it. No guessing with him. Just BOOM there it is. And then it would be over just as fast.

And he was so generous with his attention and his heart. He could have a conversation with anyone -- and that included people he really didn’t care for. From time to time, someone would come into the Bell that he knew none of us wanted to talk to and he’d take one for the team and corner them off and entertain them until they were talked out.

The bridegroom taking the world into his arms.

I know there will be a day when the joy of having known him will be greater than the pain of not having him here. I know, great love means great grief. I know that the only way to avoid this pain is to avoid love. And I keep telling myself that I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t hurt this much. But you know, for all the pain I feel now, I wouldn’t consider, even for an instant, trading it for a life in which this pain didn’t exist because I didn’t know and love Tim.

I miss him like hell but I don’t have any regrets or any unsaid words, because he showed me how to live fully ever day.

A bride married to amazement. A bridegroom taking the world into his arms.
posted by janey47 at 12:04 PM on November 8, 2013 [143 favorites]


You guys, thank you so much for all your help. I was absolutely bombarded with people thanking me and complimenting me and asking me if I were a writer and telling me I should be a writer and one of Tim's brothers told me that I'd made them all cry and several of the family members told me they loved the poem, so all my worries were for naught. Also, I have admired one of my friend's sisters-in-law for many years, even before I knew my friend, and she made a point of telling me that I did a wonderful job, which means so much coming from her.

Thank you all for helping me structure my thoughts and form my little talk, and for being supportive while I was freaking out.

xxoo
posted by janey47 at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


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