In Praise of Eulogies

Maybe you have noticed I haven’t written a blog post for a few weeks. No? Ah well, here’s one now anyway. My absence was due to deaths within the family and among my, admittedly aging, circle of friends and neighbours.

All this means I’ve been to quite a few funerals recently, and listened to a lot of eulogies. All have contained many nuggets of information I didn’t know about someone I thought I knew well; most have been short and entertaining ‘splashes of colour from a palette of memories’ as one celebrant described them; one was very long.

The definition of a eulogy is a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something. It is especially associated with being a commemoration and celebration at a funeral of the life of the person who has just died.

An ideal eulogy gives mourners a brief overview of the deceased’s life; provides a few succinct memories (including one or two anecdotes); references close family and friends; and gives a glimpse of a loved one’s significant accomplishments, interests and hobbies. It should last no more than five to six minutes, and above all it is a celebration of the life of the deceased, not the author(s). Anyone can give the eulogy, but often it is given by the celebrant, using notes a close family member or friend has collated.

The long eulogy referred to above went on, and on … There were many references to the older sister – perhaps because she took the lead in preparing it? – and she had also included a lengthy poem she wrote as a teenager in the funeral programme. The feeling for some, was that she had ignored the fact that other mourners, including other close family members, were also there to reflect on the life of their much-loved young relative. Even the celebrant seemed to be wilting at the end and was glad to hand over to the young man’s paternal uncle to read a very brief but emotionally powerful tribute from the father.

The message here is, even something as poignant and personal as a eulogy needs a dispassionate editor. Length and repetition are counter productive if many of the mourners are furtively looking at their watches, or phones.

The word eulogy has Greek roots: eu – good, and logos – speech. Its first recorded use in English was in the fifteenth century. The word is sometimes confused with elegy, which also means praise, usually for someone who has died. Like eulogy, elegy comes from Greek – elegos (a song of mourning). Unlike the prose eulogy however, an elegy usually takes the form of a poem or song, or occasionally a musical composition.

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