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Public Speaking
Speaking at a Funeral
This Paper’s Contents:

A.. An Act of Closure
B. An Act of Remembrance

PAPER SIX : Speaking at a Funeral - Continued

B. An Act of Remembrance

This is the second thing that the service is supposed to do. For those of us who are so distraught by our loss that we are just absorbed in tears, we can miss out at this point, for this is where you come in with your eulogy.

I have often counselled people approaching a funeral: make a point of remembering the good things about this person’s life. This is an act of remembrance where we see the big picture, the panorama of their lives, a rich ‘painting by numbers’ where different aspects of their lives glowed with different colours. As you help people see this ‘big picture’ and rejoice in the sort of person they were and the impact they had on the world around them, life starts taking on significance and meaning that is often missed otherwise. A funeral, strange to say, is often one of the rare times in life that we get a snapshot of what life is really all about.

3. About what to say

There may be some people about whom it is difficult to find good things to say, but I believe they are the minority.

Yes, if the husband had been a drunken, violent, verbally abusive beast right up to the end, it is perhaps difficult, if not impossible, to find good things to say. However, even with such men, I have found there is still often a wife who loved him despite all his faults. So, for her sake alone perhaps, we should make a special effort to understand and see if there is good that can be said. If that’s not possible then give the eulogy a miss!  

But for the average person, particularly if they have just been through difficult years of illness or infirmity in old age, look back beyond those years to the good years before. The more I learn about the human race, the more I realise we have the potential to be self-centred miseries, and yet that makes even more wonderful the other side that so often comes out, of courage, bravery, perseverance, acts of generosity and caring and simply, goodness!

So your dad, mum, uncle, aunt or whoever it was struggled with a violent temper. Don’t focus on that; their life was much more than that. Think of the things that they achieved, the good things they did, the people they cared for, and so on. Think of the times when you laughed together and, if you never really appreciated them before, appreciate them now. Look back and appreciate and be thankful, be thankful for those good experiences and those good emotions and what they contributed to your life. Faults there will have been – dismiss them with a light hearted comment – but don’t let them blind you to the good that was there.

4. Collecting the Picture Together

To do this well, you may need to do quite a lot of talking within the family, collecting reminiscences and memories. Remember what we said earlier, depending on the type of service, you may have between three and ten minutes. If it is a service in a church then it may be more.

Now be careful!  I have sat in services of remembrance where one person after another came up and rambled about the deceased while the rest of us got increasingly bored. I had the highest regard for the deceased but these people seemed to like the sound of their own voices.

Do the people want to know that one summer he collected a large box of shells from a holiday beach that cluttered the house ever since? Definitely not if it squeezes out some more memorable and significant things!

Make a collection of key times, dates and places that were significant in their life. Consider what were the key things they did or achieved?  Focus especially on character and particularly what they meant to you or the family. You are not painting an unreal picture of a saint (they may have been of course) but of an ordinary man or woman who left a strong print on the world. Are there people whose lives are changed because they knew them? Is something in the world different because of what they did – even little things can have big impacts.

There is your task; I can’t do it for you. Collect a collage of this person’s life and present it in the way Giles Brandreth said about after dinner speeches (the same is good here):

“Speak with clarity, conviction and warmth.”

If you’ve done your homework, assembled the collage of their past life and the impact by that person on the present gathering of these people, and you’ve tailored it to fit your time allocation,  if you bring it with clarity, conviction and warmth, you’ll have done a good job.

5. Postscript – what about a young death?

This is supposed to be about making speeches but as I have trawled some of the emotions that accompany a funeral in order to help you see the potential of a eulogy, I realise I touched on some incredibly tender areas, and should not just leave it there.

If you have lost a child or a teenager or anyone in their younger years, there are no easy answers and I would much rather sit and weep with you than try and come up with some glib answers, yet we do struggle with answers as inadequate as they may be.

The world has gone wrong, sickness strikes for no apparent reason, young people do crazy things, older people do crazy things, and pain follows and anguish follows.  But we’re all in this together.

In my own struggles with the “what might have been?” when a baby, child or young person dies, I can only ask myself (and I can’t say it for you) how will I let that pain affect me? I may never get answers but I can ask, what will I let it do to me?

One option is that I become bitter and twisted and the rest of life is one long anguish with an angry heart ache that sometimes makes me not good to be with (understatement!).  The other option is that I will let the pain work good in me – gentleness with others, compassion for their needs, acceptance and understanding of their lives.  It’s not an answer but it is better than nothing.