32 Eulogy-Good Words

Lynn Meade

Picture of an empty park bench under a tree.

 

Perhaps they are not stars
but rather openings in heaven
where the love of our lost ones
shines down to let us know they are happy.
– Eskimo legend

Most people will have to give at least one eulogy in their lifetime. Around 85% of those studied, performed individual rituals and at least 50% engaged in collective rituals following the death of a loved one. Whether it is a funeral, a remembrance ceremony, or a wake, most ceremonies include a speech. Because of that, it is helpful to have an understanding of how to build a meaningful eulogy. The word eulogy means, “good words” and it is designed to celebrate the life of someone who has passed.

According to Pastor John Meade, “Eulogies are not about death, they are about the things that live on. They give people a chance to remember, celebrate, and connect. Eulogies give mourners a way to reflect on someone they cared for in a way that helps them and others process the loss.” Block and Davies suggest that funeral rituals help the living adapt to the death. Some eulogies speak words against death and others celebrate life. Davies believes the best words are those that confront death with hope.  “relinquish their custody of the deceased.” Eulogies are for the living. 

Most people write their own eulogies. Your job as a speaker is to discover the things about them they left behind. What is their legacy? How did their life write the eulogy you will speak? It can be helpful to talk with others about the person. Sometimes talking about the person to a friend can not only be healing but can help you generate ideas. Talking to others who knew the person well, can also help you see sides of the person you hadn’t thought of.


Brainstorm

Reflect on the Person

Spend time reflecting, going through photos or old messages, talk to others as you prepare for the eulogy. Write down random things that come to mind as you think about the person. Here are some questions to help get you started.

  • What are their outstanding physical features?
  • What are one or two special memories you have of them?
  • What three words best describe them?
  • What is the funniest thing you remember?
  • What is their song? their show? their thing?
  • What is this person known for?
  • What are some sayings—one-liners—they are known for?
  • What is unique about their lifestyle or behavior?
  • What did they do to let you know that they cared about you? about others?
  • How did they meet challenges?
  • What’s a story about their childhood?
  • What smells remind you of this person?
  • How did people “get them wrong” and think they were one thing when they were really another?
  • What obstacles did they overcome?
  • What helpful advice did they give you?
  • What’s the first memory you remember of this person?
  • What are some unique mannerisms or characteristics?
  • How did their dress, shoes, jewelry, hair reflect who they were?
  • Every time you see a ______, you’ll think of ____ because ———
  • What is one story you will tell your kids (others, co-workers) about this person?
  • What legacy did will they leave?
  • What was their impact on others?
  • What did they do–hobby, craft, job?
  • Did they have a favorite scripture, poem, or quote?
  • What did they do for fun?
  • What did the two of you do together?
  • What did you learn from how they lived their life?

Two people having coffee together

Talk to Others

Part of the healing process is sharing stories with others. Castle and Philips found that sharing stories about the deceased was more helpful than professional counseling in helping individuals mourn the loss. Take time to listen to others tell their stories of the person. Ask questions. Look at photos. The more information you gather, the more personal your eulogy will be. 


Research

If they were a gardener, look up gardening quotes. If they were a golfer, look up their golf hero and find quotes. If they were a religious person, find quotes from a sacred text. Look to see if they had any favorite quotes taped to their computer or hanging on the wall. Did they have a favorite song? Look up the lyrics to it and see if they might work into the eulogy.  Research for a eulogy is much different than any other type of speech. The more information you have when you sit down to write, the more likely it is you will be able to say things that are affirming and healing.

Meghan McCain references a book at the opening of a eulogy to her father, John McCain.

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.” When Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, at the close For Whom the Bell Tolls lies wounded, waiting for his last fight, these are among his final thoughts. My father had every reason to think the world was an awful place. my father had every reason to think the world was not worth fighting for. My father had every reason to think the world was worth leaving. He did not think any of those things. Like the hero of his favorite book, John McCain took the opposite view: You had to have a lot of luck to have had such a good life.

Watch as Brook Shields ends her eulogy with one of Michael Jackson’s favorite songs.

 


Understanding the Context

As you are collecting memories, also gather information on the funeral and the logistics of how, when, and where your speech will occur.

  • Is it at a church, someone’s home, a funeral home, or graveside?
  • How many others are speaking?
  • Will there be a podium where you can place my notes?
  • Are there restrictions on how long or how short you should speak? Most eulogies are 3-7 minutes.
  • Is there a microphone?
  • Will I be speaking to family only or to a larger group?

Decide on the Emotion

There are so many emotions going through you with the passing of someone. You will need to sort through and decide which one you want to focus on. You get to decide the tone of your speech. Do you want it to be sweet? Humorous? Deeply reflective? Light-hearted? Work with an emotional tone that fits you, the person you are eulogizing, and those who will listen. Sometimes I will have someone ask me, “Do eulogies always have to be sad or warm and fuzzy because that doesn’t fit my family?” The right emotion is the one that fits your situation. Watch this short eulogy where she tells a humorous story of her mother and the answering machine.

 

 


Write Your Eulogy Out Word Per Word

Write your eulogy out word per word. It will be helpful to remind you of what to say. In emotional situations, people are likely to forget what to say so having the words in front of you may be helpful.

As you read through this chapter, I have included partial manuscripts from some of my student’s speeches. You will notice they look like poetry. For reference, I kept them in this manuscript format so you could read them in the rhythm they were written. It also helps you see how to format your eulogy.

Read this chapter on how to write a manuscript for helpful tips on formatting 


Structure Your Eulogy

There are many ways to structure a eulogy. You might stand up at your chair and just tell one story, or you might go up front behind a podium and give a more formal eulogy.  The structure will be determined by what you want to accomplish. Most eulogies include an introduction and at least one story.

An introduction is where you tell who you are and your relationship with the person. Oftentimes, you will invite the listeners in to remember with you in some way.

Grandma was my best friend. Many of you know her as Mamie, those of you who are close, know her as Babe. Whatever name you called her, you know, she would answer that call with a smile and a cookie.

There are four major structures common in eulogies.

  1. Attributes: Tell who you are to the person and what attributes you remember about them.
  2. Theme: Pick a theme and apply that to many parts of their life.
  3. Story: Tell a story and how that story impacted you.
  4. Biography: Tell a series of small stories within the timeline. Don’t just tell the facts, tell small stories from different parts of their life.

 

1. Attributes

I. Opening
A. Opening phrase
B. Who you are.
C. Who the person was to you.

II. First attribute of the person

A. A story that highlights the attribute of that person
B. Details

III. Second attribute of the person

A. A story that highlights the attribute of that person
B. Details

IV. Third attribute of the person

A. A story that highlights the attribute of that person
B. Details

V. What the person would want to be remembered for
or what you would want to say to the person if they were here

VI. Closing thoughts

 

2. Theme

Think of a theme that defines the person:

Grandma was always cooking, and she was the homemade bread that she baked. There were many ingredients in her life…. Tell families stories in terms of the things grandma cooked for them or tell of each person as an “ingredient” in her life.

Grandpa’s life was one big fishing trip:  He hooked grandma (tell the story of their meeting), I “caught” more than fish I caught lessons on…

Hannah’s life was wrapped up in her horses.  Tell several stories of her with horses and how that showed the important people and events in her life.


Tribute to Grandpa by Logan Dodd used the theme of flying for the eulogy to his grandpa who was a pilot.

While most people dream of being able to soar through the sky,
it was a reality to my grandfather, Leonard Wilhelm.
From the time that my mother was a little girl,
my grandpa was building and flying, his own aircraft.
As you all can imagine,
when I was a little boy
I was in heaven every time I went to his house and was able to watch him work on his airplanes.

But it wasn’t until after he was gone that I realized that my pilot’s lesson didn’t just start at the age of fourteen.
In fact, he was giving me pilot’s lessons when he would drive down the street in his airplane.
He was giving me pilot’s lessons when he would let me hang out with him and his flying  buddies.
He was giving me pilot’s lessons when I would go to his house every day after school.

My grandpa was determined that I would become a pilot of an airplane, yes.
But he was also determined that I would become the pilot of my own life.

 

There is a chapter on Metaphor, Similie and Theme

More Examples of Theme

Let me show you an example of how others have used themes in their eulogies. In each case, I pulled only excerpts from the speech, and I left them in a manuscript format so you can see how they wrote the speech in manuscript form (/// means pause).

Read an excerpt of this eulogy about her father using the theme of navigation.

Sample Theme 1: Navigation Theme

Navigating the Way
Hanna Arambel, University of Arkansas Student

Dad and I were two of a kind.

My family drove to California every year

and when I was younger,

I would pretend to read the map while he drove,

but soon enough, ///

I was his co-pilot over the 4000 mile trip.

Eventually, I was old enough to drive on the trip,

but he never needed the map.

Dad could always navigate the way. 

But every now and then…

Dad got a little over-ambitious when he was teaching me…

my mom always laughs at the time

we were out to eat at our favorite restaurant one evening

and my mother returned to the table

to see my father and I quibbling furiously.

“What now?” was all she could manage to say.

Before I had a chance to speak,

my father informed her,

“Betty, I just want to teach her this little thing

because it’s very important.

Everyone needs to know how to do long division.”

Needless to say, I was only 7 years old and had just started subtraction

Oh, to be the daughter of an engineer.

But still, he was always navigating the way.

In elementary plays, I was the kid who stuck out

with the most elaborate costume ……….and over-done acting…

because dad and I practiced …….. for endless……. hours.

While it embarrassed me then,

I realized later how many special memories it made 

and how much it made me even more like him.

Dad could always navigate the way. 

 

One of my favorite memories

from Dad and me

is when we were looking

at the stars one night on the back porch.

He pointed out the brightest star in the sky

and said that he always thought of me

as his brightest star.

And even though my dad is away from us now,

I can always look up and find the brightest star.

And that’s always where he’ll be.

Navigating the way


Sample Theme 2: Boating

Tribute to Papa D
Grant McQueen, University of Arkansas Student

It was in that old green boat the first time I ever caught a fish.

You were right there // behind me

With your hand on my head

It was in that old green boat I was playing with the fishing net //

                        I dropped it over the edge

And it sank // into the green depths below

It was in that old green boat we sat in the dark with flashlights

                        Waiting for a fish to bite the lines we had tied to milk jugs

The cold metal of that boat // will always and forever be the warmest place on earth to me.

                        Waking up at 4 am with you and my dad to put the rods in the truck

Mama D making us bologna sandwiches to eat on the water

You // buying me a biscuit at the bait shop

Me // falling asleep on your lap

The dull roar of the boat motor carrying us to your magic fishing spot

The cold water// the mist in the air

like nature’s reflection of you with your cold beer and cigarette smoke.

You never liked to talk much on those trips

You were afraid // our voices might wake the fish

Or so you told me

But the smile you gave //

when I would scream that I had a fish on //

spoke to me // more than words could have.

You see // you may have taught me to catch fish

But you also taught me to catch the special moments in life // and unlike fish, to not ever release them.

You were a legend in my eyes and you always will be.

(this is the first 1/3 of the speech.)


3. Story

 

Notice how Larissa Heatley tells a story about how her grandpa played a game that she made up. In our mind’s eye, we can see her playing with her grand-daddy.

 

Include the Audience

Write the eulogy for the whole audience. Yes, you are sharing your memories and yes, you had a special relationship with the person, but the audience should feel included. Using words like “we” and “us” and phrases like “we all remember” invite the audience into your speech.

 

Use Colorful Language in a Eulogy

You can elevate your eulogy emotionally and structurally by using colorful language. What I mean by colorful (or figurative) language, is using a theme, metaphor, simile, alliteration, parallel construction, and antithesis. I have a couple of chapters on these for you to look over and I will review the general ideas here as well.

More resources on using metaphor and theme 

More resources on using colorful language 

                             Using Colorful Language

Theme Repeating one idea throughout the speech, usually tied to the metaphor.
Metaphor Comparing things
Simile Comparing things using like or as
Alliteration Repeating the same letter or sound
Parallel Construction Repeating the same sentence
Antithesis The pairing of opposite in parallel structure

Parallel Construction

The great thing about parallel construction is it allows the speaker to tell a lot of little stories in a short amount of time. Watch as Oren Katz tells a series of memorable events with his friend.

Watch the video (It is cued to the moment he begins his parallel)
Sometimes its the smallest things
that take up the most room in our hearts.
I’m gonna miss the way Adam shouted at me when we were the only two people in the room.
I’m gonna miss his classic pose he struck in every last picture.
I’m gonna miss him making fun of me for liking things like poetry and exercise.
I’m gonna miss us taking walks to the Sydney Opera house  together
and sometimes falling asleep when we couldn’t keep up, we kept hanging out when we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer
I’m gonna miss us talking about nothing for hours.
I’m gonna miss us being able to say a single word to each other and bursting out laughing knowing what the other was thinking,
it was never appropriate.
I’m gonna miss meals together.
I’m gonna miss his voice.
I’m gonna miss his laugh.
I’m gonna miss him always being there for me,
no matter what.
Most of all, I’m just gonna miss
one of my best friends.

Navigating the Way

As soon as I could walk…

I took up Dad’s competitive nature.

Mom would find us arguing over rules.

  Mom would find us fighting about a card game.

     Mom would find us making bets about the oddest things.

We were always competing.

Hanna Arambel, University of Arkansas Student


Tribute to Papa D

 

Because it was in that old green boat that I learned how to catch fish with you

And I learned how the simplest of things

Can hold on to you like a barbed hook

Because it was in that old green boat where I learned that sometimes

The coldest places

Can form the warmest memories

Because it was in that old green boat where I learned what love is

And what kind of person

I want to be.

Grant McQueen, University of Arkansas Student



Eulogy to Grandpa

 

The independence that made him who he was has caused me to be who I am.

He taught me that I don’t always have to be the same as the crowd.

He taught me that no matter what my passion is, I should follow it.

He taught me that you can’t wait for opportunities to fall into your lap,

you have to go get them.

Logan Dodd, University of Arkansas Student


Antithesis

The independence that made him who he was has caused me to be who I am.
Eulogy to Grandpa, Logan Dodd, University of Arkansas Student

A woman whose spirit was always soaring
Even when her feet were firmly planted on the ground
Eulogy for Grandmother who was a pilot, Kayla Cross, University of Arkansas Student

I realize that it was never about your flower garden
It was always about tending to things of the heart
Tribute to Grandma, Tasha Smith, University of Arkansas Student

But let us not wallow in our pity,  because that is the last thing Bill Baker would want us to do. Let us instead celebrate the life of a great man finally achieving that eternal bliss that he spent his life working towards.
Eulogy to Grandpa who gave me this necktie, Dan Howry, University of Arkansas Student

Sometimes it is the smallest things
that take up the most room in our hearts.
Eulogy, Adam Levine

 


Alliteration

And his time showed me how life should be lived
Fearlessly.
Frequently.
Freely.


Simile

My grandpa Jack is like the wind. We can’t see him, but we can feel him.
He is always with us.
Eulogy to Grandpa Jack, Lily, University of Arkansas Student

I would tell him that I miss him like the windmill missed the wind.
He was a man of defiance
A man….of truth
And he came
And he went
Like the wind
Eulogy to Grandpa, Logan Dodd, University of Arkansas Student


Metaphor

Watch as Billy Crystal uses the metaphor of a star to eulogize Robin Williams

For almost 40 years he was the brightest star in a comedy galaxy. But while some of the brightest of our celestial bodies are actually extinct now, their energy long since cooled.

But miraculously, since because they float in the heavens so far away from us now, their beautiful light will continue to shine on us forever. And the glow will be so bright, it’ll warm your heart, it’ll make your eyes glisten and you’ll think to yourselves, ‘Robin Williams— what a concept.’ Billy Crystal’s Eulogy to Robin Williams


 

What If I Cry?

tissue box

It is OK to cry when you are giving a eulogy. In fact, people expect it. If tears come to your eyes, don’t apologize, just pause, breathe, and continue.

Research on funerals shows that people respect those who speak with authenticity and they admire those who are willing to share their knowledge of the deceased even when that person falters.

It was hard in that funeral. I think that there was a huge sense of it being too soon for the deceased to part from us and a real sadness that here was someone who was so lovely and it was hard and painful, especially when his son spoke. I think that was when most of us felt really upset, it was mostly because he was so utterly brave and strong in saying what he was saying. We could all sense that he was in tremendous pain. I was full of admiration of his strength of character in being able to say what he did. I can’t remember the poem that he read or the verses. It was beautiful though. The elder brother got up to support his younger brother and that was also lovely to see.

If, however, you are not ready emotionally to speak about the loved one, it is best not to offer to speak at a real funeral or in an in-class eulogy speech.

The most admirable thing that I have seen at funerals is people who are brave enough to stand in front of their friends and family and speak. Speaking in public is something that most of us do not have much experience of and it can be very intimidating. Add to that the grief that you are feeling at a funeral, which makes it even harder to stand up and speak. I can offer nothing but praise to the people that are prepared to do this small but beautiful last act of kindness to the memory of a deceased friend or relative.

What do you, the audience member do if the speaker cries. Tears can make us feel empathy, they can make us feel sad, they can make us feel awkward. If someone is giving a eulogy and they cry, don’t look away. Show your support with a reassuring glance and a light smile if it feels right. Think of eye contact as a warm hug that helps them get through the moment.

(Quote from a research study on funerals)

 

In a research study about eulogies and funerals, researchers Bailey and Walter noted that the things mourners reported were the most important was accuracy, authenticity, and performance.

  1. Accuracy: It is not your goal to tell everyone’s view of the deceased, but rather to tell your view in a way that honors the memory of that person for everyone.
  2.  Authenticity: An authentic eulogy is preferred to a professional one.
  3. Performance: People admire you for being brave enough to stand up in a time of grief and speak out and do not expect a perfect performance.

Your eulogy will be as unique as the person you are celebrating. What an awesome opportunity you have to speak about someone you care about. Eulogies can be hard, but they are important to help everyone celebrate the life of someone that mattered to them.

 


 

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

  • Spend a lot of time brainstorming, reflecting, researching, and talking to others before you begin to write.
  • Write in a manuscript format.
  • Use inclusive language
  • Tells stories when possible.
  • Try incorporating colorful language: Simile, metaphor, antithesis, alliteration, parallel construction.
  • Consider using a theme that fits the person or the situation.

Bonus Feature

Real Answers to Tough Questions

  • What if they died in a tragic way? What if it was a suicide? What if it was after a long illness?

It is important to remember a eulogy is about the life they lived not the way they died. Most people who are at the funeral know how they died so why mention it?  Instead, spend your time sharing memories.

You may choose to talk about how they fought hard at the end or how they kept a positive attitude at the end. Just don’t let the end of their life be the only focus of their life.

  • What if they had an unremarkable life?

I once helped write a eulogy of someone who never held a job, had no close family ties, had no hobbies except to sit and watch TV ten hours a day. After talking to four family members, the best thing they say about him was that he took out the trash without being asked.  Most people write their own eulogies, and some people don’t write very much. Don’t apologize for their life or for your brevity, just tell the stories you have to tell. Tell about the dent in the sofa cushion and the funny sound he made when something funny came on TV.

 

References

Arabel, H. Navigating the way. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Bailey, T.  &  Walter, T.  (2016) Funerals against death, Mortality, 21(2), 149-166, DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2015.1071344

Romanoff, B.D. (1998). Rituals and the grieving process. Death Studies, 22(8), 697-711, DOI: 10.1080/074811898201227

Castle, J., & Phillips, W. L. (2003). Grief rituals: Aspects that facilitate adjustment to bereavementJournal of Loss and Trauma8(1), 4171. doi:10.1080/15325020305876

Cross, K. Eulogy for Grandmother who was a pilot. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Crystal, B. (2014). Billy Crystal’s Emmy Awards 2014 Tribute to Robin Williams. [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUHV703ZRys Standard YouTube License.

(2017). Cremation. The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying.

Dodd, L. Eulogy to Grandpa. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Fripp, P.( 2012). Accepting an award with class,” Toastmasters International.  http://www.toastmasters.org/Members/SpotlightArticles/AcceptAwardClass.aspx.

Giblin, P.  & Hug, A. (2006). The psychology of funeral rituals, Liturgy, 21(1), 11-19, DOI: 10.1080/04580630500285956

Heathley, L. (2013). Dallas Willard’s memorial service-Granddaughter’s tribute. [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_tUflixuds Standard YouTube License. 

Howry, D. Eulogy to Grandpa who gave me this necktie. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Huibertha B. Mitima-Verloop, Trudy T. M. Mooren & Paul A. Boelen (2019) Facilitating grief: An exploration of the function of funerals and rituals in relation to grief reactions, Death Studies, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2019.1686090

Hubbard, L. (2018). Read the full transcript of Meghan McCain’s eulogy to her father John McCain. Town and Country. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a22892378/meghan-mccain-eulogy-for-john-mccain-full-transcript/

Katz, O. (2016). Adam Levine close friend eulogy. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRCdTWtuwAk Standard YouTube License

Lustig, T., (2012). The most difficult speech: The Eulogy.  Toastmasters International. http://www.toastmasters.org/ToastmastersMagazine/ToastmasterArchive/2009/December/Articles/The-Eulogy.aspx.

McQueen, G. Tribute to Papa D. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Shields, B. (2009). Michael Jackson Memorial-Brooke Shields Tribute. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pxjujsW0v0 Standard YouTube License

Smith, T. Tribute to Grandma. University of Arkansas Advanced Public Speaking.

Toastmasters International (2012). Introducing a speaker: What should you say? http://www.toastmasters.org/MainMenuCategories/FreeResources/NeedHelpGivingaSpeech/BusinessPresentations/IntroducingaSpeaker.aspx.

Warren, J. T. & Fassett, D.L. (2011). Communication: A Critical/Cultural Introduction, 39.

WestsideToastmasters.com (2012).  Presenting an award for maximum impact. http://westsidetoastmasters.com/article_reference/presenting_awards_for_maximum_impact_2005-01.html.


  1. “This I Believe—Essay Writing Guidelines,” accessed March 17, 2012, http://thisibelieve.org/guidelines

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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