PAPER SIX : Speaking at a Funeral
A ‘eulogy’ is simply a speech or writing in praise of a person. When it comes to a funeral it is as simple as that.
But, having said that, there are things to say and to think about that might help us.
There are, I’ve concluded, two things about the impact of what is said at a funeral:
1. For some people they will be in such a state of grief that really, whatever you say, it won’t be taken in. That said, often funerals or remembrance services are recorded today, and so those who were grieving at the funeral may later have a chance to hear and appreciate what you said.
2. There will be those who hear and take in and appreciate what you say and who will be lifted and comforted by what you say at the funeral service.
A warning! If it is a cremation, unless there has been a double space booking it is usual for the amount of time for the service to be only 20 – 25 minutes and therefore you will need to be very economical with the time. If it is a burial service in a church, you do not tend to have that difficulty.
On the pages about speeches at Weddings, we sought to convey the thought that when you take the opportunity to speak, you have the opportunity to bless, lift, impact people with your words so that they go away feeling really good about the experience.
If that is true of weddings, it is doubly so of funerals. Perhaps to understand the significance of our role if we have the opportunity to speak at a funeral, we need to consider some of what I would refer to as the different dimensions of the funeral, different aspects that impose different feelings on the people present before whom you are going to speak. Most of this paper will deal with that, before moving on to the “what to say” part.
2. The Basics of a Funeral
Someone has died and it is probable that there are those at the service who are grieving. It is impossible to generalise over people’s feelings at a funeral. There are some people close to the deceased who will put on a brave face and even be smiling and laughing, for they say they have a joy in knowing where their loved one has gone. They are grieving but grief is tempered by hope.
Then there are those who do not hold back on their emotions and appear devastated by their loss and weep from beginning to end of the service. And then there is a wide spectrum in between these two extremes.
But as well as the close family, there are often friends and colleagues who have heard of the death and simply want to come along, pay their respects, and acknowledge their sorrow that this person is no longer with them.
If the deceased is a young person that is doubly difficult because we do not expect young people to die, and therefore there may well be young friends or family present who are not coping with the loss. This brings another added dimension to be added to the equation. Indeed in many, there may be an angry frustration that ‘God let this happen’ and that this was such a waste of a life that was cut off prematurely.
Where the deceased was elderly, it is quite possible that in their latter years they had been ill or infirm, possibly in care, and possibly with little of their mind left. Each of these things present a different dimension to be considered.
It is quite probable that some family members are actually glad that this person has now died, but struggling with their feelings, they find guilt impinging on them. Of course the truth is that when we see a loved one struggling, possibly a loved one we have lived with for many years and with whom we have laughed and cried and enjoyed high times and suffered low times, we desperately struggle with having to watch them in daily pain, struggling with life, or even losing their mind. It is not unreal and not wrong to feel glad that their suffering has been ended. Yet we still feel the grief of their absence. There is now a hole in your life that possibly may never be filled.
There will also be some there who struggle with the whole concept of growing old, struggle with the fact that in old age, people you once knew have become decrepit wrecks, and very often the apparent meaninglessness of it all creates a defensive anger in some.
Again, if it was an elderly person, there may well be other elderly people in the congregation, people who have grown up with the deceased and who are now feeling their own mortality as those of their generation, all around them, pass away one by one.
Do you begin to see what I referred to as the different dimensions at play in the congregation before whom you are going to speak? What you are going to say, can bring comfort and help to each of them perhaps, and may remind or show them it is possible for there to be meaning and significance in life.
But we have yet to touch on the PURPOSE of the funeral. It is, I would suggest, twofold:
A. An Act of Closure
It brings closure for the people there who are able to say goodbye to their loved one. No, that is not ‘them’ in the coffin, the real them has passed on days beforehand, but this is an act of farewell.
Of course, at this point it becomes very personal and depends on what we believe, if we have any beliefs in this realm. Here I confess my Christian belief that when a person dies, the real them goes on to face God.
For those of us who cannot cope with this, I feel very sorry. Closure is very difficult. I knew a man who visited his wife’s grave twice a day, every day until he himself died a number of years later. That was his way of coping with the incredible loss that he felt, but it was not closure. Closure allows us to move on in life and not be dominated by the loss of our loved one. It is not in any way disrespecting them or loving them less, to suggest this.
I’m sure my own family will not mind if I share a personal memory, which I have shared publicly. My father-in-law died a number of years ago (my own parents had died quite a long while earlier). I have seen the occasional dead body before but I had never been into a Chapel of Rest to view the body before. On this occasion I felt it right to do that. The funeral director ushered me into this little chapel where the open topped coffin lay to reveal my father-in-law, cleaned up, neat and tidy, and well suited, and left me alone.
As I gazed down on the body I found myself thinking, “He’s shrunk. That’s nothing like the man I used to know,” and then it dawned on me, “That’s not Dad, he’s gone!” I remained in the little room for about ten minutes praying and giving thanks for the memories that I had of him.
Eventually it seemed it was time to go (and this was the strange thing), and I stood up, glanced at the body and then turned away and without thinking looked upwards and found myself say, “See you sometime, Dad.” Think what you will of it.
The funeral service is first of all, a time of closure, a recognition that our loved one has really gone.