A eulogy is a speech given at a funeral in commemoration of someone’s life. Humanist funeral celebrant Alex Collis shares her top tips about how to write a eulogy for a loved one.
A humanist funeral is both a chance to say goodbye to someone we love, and a way of celebrating their life. The beauty of a humanist funeral is that they are unique and personal ceremonies. Because each life is different, there are no hard and fast rules for what to include, but they will all include a eulogy or tribute.
No two eulogies will be the same. Each eulogy is different because it talks about a person who has died and their unique path through life. A eulogy should reflect the character, personality, achievements and values of the person who died.
How do I write a eulogy?
It can feel like a huge responsibility to write a eulogy. Especially when you’re sitting there faced with a blank page. How on earth do you fit someone’s life into a few minutes? Will you manage to get it right? To say everything you need to about the person who has died, when they’ve been such an important part of your life.
Writing a eulogy is, underneath it all, a creative act and a way of paying tribute to someone you love.
There’s no checklist of what you should include, but here are some ideas on what you could include:
Memories of times that you spent together, with a specific example or two.
Any sayings or habits they had, or any anecdotes about them. When you talk about them, you’ll see the people in front of you smile and nod in recognition.
Short readings or poems that held a particular meaning for them, or that reflect their character.
Details of key life events, their childhood or family background.
Details of their work history and achievements, or their interests and hobbies.
Any particular words that you would use to describe them, and their character.
Lyrics from songs that they liked.
Top tips for writing a eulogy
The best advice for anyone writing a eulogy is to speak from the heart, in a way that fits the person who has died. You’re writing the eulogy to fit the person, rather than fitting them into a pre-designed format.
Make it personal and conversational.
If they weren’t a formal person, then don’t make the eulogy too formal. When John Cleese delivered a eulogy for Graham Chapman, he told the mourners that it was ‘one last opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste’.
Don’t be afraid of laughter. A eulogy doesn’t have to be too solemn, if that doesn’t fit with who they were. Take a look at Jonathan Ive’s tribute to Apple founder Steve Jobs. He talks about his former colleague’s love of ideas, but in a light-hearted and uplifting way.
It can be difficult to make a start, as Cher found when writing a eulogy for her ex-husband Sonny Bono. If you get stuck, try talking to others about the person you’re remembering, such as their family and friends. Sharing memories of someone can be the spark that you need!
Writing a list of words that spring to mind when you think about the person who has died can also help get you started. Sometimes putting together a timeline of their life can be useful too.
Think about what you might say to that person if they were with you. What would you like to tell them?
Sketch a rough outline with a few key headings, to give your eulogy structure. Then you can start to fill in the details and give your outline some colour.
Write in plain English and short sentences. This sounds more natural than relying on more ‘flowery’ or elaborate language.
Aim to speak for around 5 minutes. You don’t have to speak for this long, but it’s a useful guide. If you need to speak for longer, that’s fine too!
You can write about someone who has died in the third person, or it may work better to address them directly. If you’re unsure, then read the eulogy out loud to see how it sounds.
How to deliver a eulogy
Work with the celebrant leading the funeral to see how and where your eulogy fits into the ceremony. They will also be able to offer support with writing the eulogy if you need it, and to offer suggestions.
Practice reading the eulogy out loud before the funeral to a friend or family member. It can help with any nerves you might be feeling (which are natural), and also helps to spot any mistakes. Any celebrant worth their salt will do this too!
Have a back-up plan ready. Giving a eulogy for someone important to you can be hard thing to do. You may be surprised at how emotional you are on the day. Even some trained celebrants will find it difficult to give a eulogy for someone close to them. Make sure you have a support person there, ready to step in or stand next to you if needed. Your celebrant can also read the eulogy on your behalf if that’s easier.
Speak slowly, allow yourself time to pause, and breath, and for the mourners to take in what you are saying.
Try and make eye contact with your audience, if possible. If you are nervous, you could agree before the funeral with a friend or family member that you’ll focus on them. If you think you’ll be too emotional, it’s fine not to make eye contact.
It can be hard, especially when you are feeling anxious or nervous, but try to stand straight and still. Again, practicing beforehand can help here.
Remember, it is okay to feel upset while reading. You don’t need to hide your feelings.
Be kind to yourself. You are doing something special for someone you love. Delivering a eulogy takes a lot of energy and effort. Try and plan some downtime after the funeral, when you can sit and relax.
And remember, the eulogy doesn’t have to be perfect. Write from the heart. If you do that, you can’t go far wrong.