Jun 6, 2016

Father Tim's Unofficial Eulogy Guidelines

There's a fine line between a eulogy that drags on too long and a hostage situation. We've all been there. And if you're sitting in the congregation as the speaker drones on and on, you quickly come to the realization that you are the hostage. Talk about a captive audience...

I'm generally not a big fan of eulogies and although I allow them I don't exactly encourage them. Indeed, the best funerals I've attended are liturgies where the priest knew the deceased and spoke powerfully about the person within the context of Christ's resurrection.

When eulogies are included in funerals over which I preside, I do find that most people are respectful of the church's eulogy guidelines and the gentle admonition to "keep it short." But occasionally this gets tossed out the stained glass window and you end up with...a situation.

As I've thought about (and experienced) a few of these over the years, I decided it would be helpful to offer potential eulogists a few helpful hints.

1. A Eulogy is Not a Roast. Please, please, please, save the drunken carousing stories for the reception. Sure, the deceased like to have a good time. That's great. And I'm delighted that one of his fraternity buddies was chosen to deliver the eulogy. But we're trying to briefly paint a picture of the person's character not immortalize him as Bluto from Animal House.

2. Beware the Waterworks. Is there anything more uncomfortable than a family member weeping
uncontrollably while trying to get through a eulogy? Since you can't understand a word being said, it's basically an awkward public cry-fest. If you have the "gift of tears," maybe eulogizing is not for you.

3. A Eulogy is Not a Therapy Session. Yes, all families are at least slightly dysfunctional. That's a reality of the human condition and the reason God created therapists. But if you find yourself speaking in "I Statements" throughout the talk, you may as well be giving it from a couch.

4. A Eulogy is Not an Obituary. It's safe to assume that everyone who cared enough to attend the funeral has read the obituary. Please don't begin with "XX was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1942" and then proceed to list every job she ever held, every house in which she ever lived, and every person she ever met. We know. We read the obituary.

5. Keep it Short. The best eulogies are heartfelt and to the point And by "to the point" I mean five minutes or less. Don't go on and on as if you were channeling Bill Clinton giving that famously long and boring endorsement speech for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

6. Don't Turn the Deceased into a Saint. Nobody's perfect (well, except Jesus and nobody eulogized him). If someone was a jerk in life, there's no need to canonize the person in a eulogy. It will be inauthentic and disingenuous at best. Talk about his or her good qualities and even the challenging aspects of personality. But if someone used to kick the dog, there's no sense in turning him into St. Francis.

7. A Eulogy is Not a Stand-Up Routine. Sure, use humor. Especially if it sheds light upon the character of the deceased. But you're probably not as funny as you think you are and, again, a eulogy should never be all about you. Unless Bill Murray is giving the eulogy, tread lightly on the humor.

8. Practice! It's amazing how many people come up to the lectern and seem to sight-read their eulogy. Even if you are a confident public speaker, it's important to read it aloud. Go ahead and time it -- it's probably a lot longer than you think. Then edit it down and practice it again. There's enough emotion already; at least be comfortable with what you're saying.

It's worth remembering that only a few generations ago, the Church's burial rite didn't even include the deceased's name -- it was a celebration of God as the giver of life and attempted to place the particular death within this larger context. Obviously pastoral sensitivity now encourages us to recognize the individual but the sense of reverence and restraint remains. The entire liturgy -- the music, the readings, the eulogies, the sermon -- point to the mystery of the God who has created and redeemed us.

So, if you are tasked with giving a eulogy in church, please be mindful of these (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek guidelines. Your family and the entire congregation will thank you.


Relling said...

clear, concise, and to the point. I especially like the advice to practice and edit!

Dr. Jessup said...

Show respect for all and give honest praise and remember it's not all about you.

Lynn Wilson said...

I can't help but remember the hilarious eulogy scene from The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode titled "Chuckles Bites the Dust". For those young whippersnappers out there who have never seen it, go to Hulu or Youtube and pull it up.

Wanda said...

Great counsel! I have typically advised that the eulogy be 5 minutes or less, that it be typed out for clarity's sake and rehearsed at home. As far as the tears, people sometimes do become overwhelmed in the emotion of the moment, so the typed eulogy gives them a place to focus, if needed. At times, someone else has taken over reading the text on behalf of the person grieving. A subtle comic touch occurred at a funeral in which someone else presided. The son was eulogizing his mother in a corporate-sized parish in a well-heeled community. He wore a loud jacket because he said that his mother always asked him to dress conservatively for church. He also noted that she loved him unconditionally-and was confident that she would have understood his desire to be himself without apology. Amen to the frat stories!!

Katrina said...

So I guess when I'm "altar gulding"at funerals I can't hand out copies of this or just skip them in the service bulletin?? Oh the stories I could share with you . You hit the (coffin) nail on the head with all of these.

J. Michael Povey said...

The parish at which I serve in retirement has a strict rule about eulogies.

It states that one and only one eulogy may be delivered, that it should be no longer than five minutes, and that it is to be spoken before the Liturgy begins. This works so well. Since the eulogy is given before the Liturgy begins the Gospel is enabled to have the last word

Les said...

My policy is simple: written and practiced; short (less than 5 minutes); and applicable to the celebration at hand. I try to direct eulogies to the reception or visitation - where they are more appropriate anyway.