How To Write a Eulogy for Somebody You Don't Know?
April 9, 2014 10:24 AM   Subscribe

My sister has asked me to deliver the eulogy for my nephew at his funeral next week. He was 21 when he died of a drug overdose. I am happy to do it, but the difficulty is that I did not know him. So, I am having a hard time getting started...

I need something that captures the idea that young deaths are more poignant / tragic / ?? than other deaths.

My sister has only given me two pieces of direction:

1 - She wants me to include the Lord's Prayer, and
2 - She does not want me telling stories about him, since I didn't know him. We recently attended a funeral where this approach was taken, and we both feel it was an awful approach.

So, I am looking for inspiration here. Poetry (modern or ancient), songs, essays, etc.
posted by The Blue Olly to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't sound like she really wants you to give a eulogy, per se, since a eulogy speaks in praise and memory of a person. It sounds more like she wants you to give a general address that concludes with the Lord's Prayer. This would suggest remarks about the impermanence of life, making the most of every day, making sure that we cherish our friends/family/relationships while they are with us, etc. I don't have any specific suggestions, because it's hard to pick something that would appeal to you and your family's sensibilities, but the internet abounds with that sort of thing. If it were me, I'd keep it under 500 words.
posted by slkinsey at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2014 [13 favorites]

Agree with slkinsey. Approach/research this less as a eulogy and more as a general speech/address.
posted by radioamy at 10:39 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

She does not want me telling stories about him

Um, isn't that what a eulogy is? Talking about the deceased?

At age 30, I gave the eulogy for my 29-year-old boyfriend who died of a drug overdose. He wasn't a saint, and no one wanted to hear that he was. I talked about his good points, of which there were many, and also talked in general about how there are just some damn things that we can't control, no matter how hard we try.

On preview: yeah, what the others said. Perhaps you could focus on this theme, read up on addiction and how it can kill people. It's easy enough to search for scripture quotes or what have you that are applicable.
posted by Melismata at 10:44 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's a rubric for writing a standard eulogy.

I'd do something pretty rote:

Jason was born only twenty-five years ago, in Stockton, California. It's hard to lose someone when they are so young, especially to something so horrible as addiction. What makes it worse for me is that I never got the chance to know him. Addiction isolates people, from the families who love them, from the friends who can't help them and from each addicts own self, as he spirals deeper and deeper into his disease. Every loss is a loss to all of us, as John Donne reminds us:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

We are diminished by his loss, by the things we never got to say to him, by the things he never got to do and by the void his death leaves.

We are comforted in knowing that whatever pain he knew here, in the afterlife it will be lifted from him. If you will, please pray with me:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.....

I'm so sorry for your family.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:48 AM on April 9, 2014 [40 favorites]

I'm sorry for your family's loss.

You could "interview" some of his friends and just ask them to describe him. Which would give you some content: "Over the last few days I've spoken with NAME's friends and family. They described him as someone _____, _____, and _____; someone who was there when you needed him, quick with a joke and a helping hand..." (etc, with what you really DO hear when you ask.)

A poem would be great, too. Check out this past question for some ideas.
posted by amaire at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2014

Did he post anything publicly on social media? If he posted any song lyrics, for example, that might be a way for him to speak for himself, in a way.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:36 AM on April 9, 2014

I heartily disagree with Ruthless Bunny's prescription. It sounds like many of the homily/eulogies I've heard preachers deliver at memorial when they didn't really know the person and didn't bother finding out anything about them.

Doing this well when you didn't really know the person is a challenge, but it can be done. You'll need to do some work. Doing it without "telling stories" is just wrong, however. Stories is what the whole memorial should be about. Poetry, psalms and the Lord's Prayer are fine, but without stories, its just pablum. If it was an awful thing at the other funeral you went to, it must have been done wrong.

So, ignore your sister's wish with regard to stories. Talk to your nephew's family and friends, and get the stories. There are good memories out there, and they will tell people what kind of person he really was, underneath the obvious cloud of the drug problem. If you don't tell those stories, the people attending — yourself included — will not get to know him any better, and will be left only with the sadness of the drug situation. You can give them a better understanding of your nephew. But you only have this one opportunity.
posted by beagle at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't say I agree with advice to ignore your grieving sisters wishes. Maybe focus on your relationship with her and how you understood it through the lens of her being a mother? Something that's not story based, is about how you knew how much he meant to her and take that approach?
posted by Carillon at 11:58 AM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think it is also customary to briefly point out any close relatives in attendance. If you are unsure about who is present, you can always list out the familial roles of the deceased ("he was a son, a father, a brother, an uncle....") and honor those relatives indirectly.
posted by 99percentfake at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

In some religious traditions one does not deliver a typical eulogy. For example the Anglican / Episcopal tradition encourages a focus on what God has done / is doing, not what the person has or has not done.
In your situation you could talk about the family and how they are supporting each other, about how different people grieve, about symbols at rituals that are important in your family. Focus on quotes or or poems about hope, about eternity, and love.
My condolences for your loss.
posted by SyraCarol at 1:17 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think this short poem, attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, would make a good lead in to the Lords Prayer:

Even such is Time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

And I've always found Shakespeare's sonnet 33 quite moving. (Although it hinges on a terrible Shakespearean pun, so it may not be for everyone. Me, I like a pun.)

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

posted by danteGideon at 2:23 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

And I wonder if it would be permissible to tell a story about your sister that showed some aspect of your nephew, or illustrated her relationship with him. That might enable you to add some personal stuff whilst respecting your sister's wishes.
posted by danteGideon at 2:28 PM on April 9, 2014

I don't have a specific idea, but I would explore the parallels and differences between reality, and what might have been. Reality is that you didn't know him, and you will not get the chance to know him, at least not first hand. Alternatives are that you'd known him, but he still died young, before he or you, or anyone who learned what he might become. Or the equivalents, were he still alive.

What catches your attention when considering reality and these alternatives against each other? What might this roomful of friends, family, and strangers want to think about, when they leave, or talk about after the ceremony? What might someone with a 21 niece or nephew consider about the road ahead of them both? What might a 21 year old consider about the road ahead of them, about their connections to friends and family?

Think about this in relationship to the lords prayer, on the one hand is anchored in the basics of everyday existence, and co-existance, while speaking to the infinite.
posted by Good Brain at 4:01 PM on April 9, 2014

My husband's family tradition (in keeping with their Episcopalian upbringing) is to sing hymns or songs as part of the eulogy. At one particularly nice memorial service, we all sang Amazing Grace, which might work for your purpose. At another, for someone who loved the sea and to sail, it was Eternal Father, Strong to Save (you won't know the title but will recognize the words). Nearer My God to Thee was used at another. It can be surprisingly comforting when everyone is sad and emotional, to come together and have everyone to sing something (though you do need to make sure they all have the words).
posted by gudrun at 5:54 PM on April 9, 2014

« Older Has anyone heard of a degree in "strategic...   |   What was this Japanese comic about cigarettes? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.