(photo by Marcia)
Funerals tend to be more elegy than eulogy, lamenting the dead rather than celebrating the person’s life as we send them off into the Afterlife with a toast and a hearty cheer.
Maybe it’s a matter of timing. In a funeral, right after someone has died, we are overwhelmed by feelings of loss, and we’re trying to corral enough beauty and joy to offset our pain. A memorial service held later in the year allows us to remember the person’s entire life. Three weeks after my wife died, I could not give Evelyn’s eulogy. The shock of her death was still too fresh and raw, and a friend graciously read my words.
Most of us dream of someone delivering an amazing eulogy at our funeral, although a few of us would choose an elegy, wanted to be mourned with wailing and tears rather than celebrated. We won’t hear any of their words, of course, unless they rehearse them with us ahead of time, but it’s comforting to think that someone will remind everyone how amazing we were, with a few words about one of our mistakes to keep us believable.
We have lost our language for speaking eloquently and intelligently about death.
If you are delivering a eulogy, you want to summarize the person’s entire life. Don’t dwell on their last days or weeks. If they were old and rather feeble, we want to remember who they were at the physical and mental peaks of their life, how they loved to dance or sing, or overcame a rough childhood or a physical challenge, to become the person we called our friend. The truth is, what we admired about them was always there, even when they were young. It isn’t restricted to what they did, or to their awards. Eulogies talk about who they were, their accomplishments and their regrets, what endeared them to us, and the personality quirks that pushed us away.
We want to remind people that the person who died had a host of experiences and adventures throughout their life, like being a soccer player or a sailor on Puget Sound. Talk about what formed the person we came to love. You will probably share stories that not everyone knows. This can bring the dead person’s spirit alive, and make us wish we had taken the time to know them better.
Once we accept that death is properly a part of life, then we don’t have to fight the philosophical “why” when good, talented, and compassionate people die. Sometimes, people just die for no discernable reason.
‘Grief is as small and infinite as stars.’ - Julie H Lemay
Mention what they did for others, and what you will miss most about them. You can say why this death should matter to all of us, and how we can keep their presence and words alive in our hearts. If the only thing they did in life was make a ton of money, and they had few friends, then you are probably speaking to a small audience, and regret may be one of your themes.
If you belong to a faith community, affirm its beliefs about death and the afterlife, but talk also about the suffering that the family and close friends are feeling. Talk about how the community can support them as they navigate their way through grief and adjust to living with the absence of the one who died.
Every death is a tragedy for those who loved that person, even if the rest of the world doesn’t notice. But when someone dies young, or out of sequence, or when they were just joining their chosen profession, then a layer of bitterness is added in. Besides losing this person, we also grieve the loss of everything they were about to accomplish with their insights and skills, and we mourn not being able to see them blossom.
As we get older, friends and family begin to die—some from natural causes and old age, but also from household accidents, cancer, heart attacks, and acts of violence. As we go to more and more funerals, we begin to realize how fragile life is. This can unnerve us so much that we wake up every morning wondering who died overnight. Every ache, cough, and tick of our body will make us wonder if something is seriously wrong with us and it’s only a matter of days before we’re gone, and some of us will be right.
We can be creative with the raw elements of our emotions as a way of expressing our grief. We don’t have to deliver our eulogies in words. Arvo Pärt created the music of Cantus to eulogize Benjamin Britten.
After the deaths of his father and his son, Franz Liszt found that the musical language he had been taught wasn’t able to express the depths of his emotions. According to Kevin LeVine, Liszt began to experiment by using chromatically dissonant textures, harmonies based on whole tone, bitonality, and musical impressionism that would later be expanded by Debussy and Ravel. His music grew darker, but also freer, and by doing so, he was able to express his grief in a way that spoke to the next generation of listeners and musicians.
If we don’t compose music, we can create paintings or sculptures to express our grief. We can push on the boundaries of language and find new ways of expressing grief through writing. By being creative, we change the destructive energies of death and despair into what brings life and hope back into the world.
Maybe we need both, an elegy to express the loss that is felt by the community, and a eulogy later to articulate, summarize, and celebrate the person’s life.
If we want honesty, perhaps a wake is better for acknowledging the entirety of a person than a stylized eulogy. If we truly loved them, then we want to remember them as they were—a mixture of nobility, pride, selfishness, compassion, and dreams—because we know this to be the truth about ourselves.