Obituary writing is a fine art. We are exposed to it each day in the newspapers. A well-written obituary covers the facts. It is essentially a mini-biography of the deceased. Factually correct, focusing on the key areas of their life, and typically written in chronological order.
At Great Speech Writing we are regularly sent draft eulogies to review. This is clearly a job that requires sensitivity. You might imagine that we pour over pages of emotional, tear-jerking prose. But no. Quite the opposite. We receive many drafts that are, essentially, obituaries. They often contain details of each home in which the deceased lived, an in-depth career history, lists of hobbies and interests, and strings of names of families and friends, explaining the whys and wherefores of relationships.
Why a eulogy is different
This approach misses the key distinction between the obituary and the eulogy. The former is written for the record. The latter is spoken for the moment.
A eulogy should convey emotion. It’s about empathy. Conveying a sense of personality, of warmth, and of relevance. It’s an impressionist painting of a life. The detail is less meaningful than the overall sentiment. It is not a time for reading out lists.
Here are two alternative openings to eulogies for the same person:
OPTION 1) – Obituary style
Good afternoon everyone. Joan Harvey was born on 23rd July 1924. She was daughter to Simon and Esther, and a younger sister to Elizabeth. Joan grew up at 26 Mill Lane, Totteridge, and close to her beloved horses. There was a stables within half a mile from the house, and twice a week she would walk along the lane, hand-in-hand with her father. As a toddler she would chat to the horses, and started riding on her sixth birthday. By the age of eight she was able to trot, and within three years had started to enter local competitions. By this stage she was attending St Margaret’s School for Girls, where she made friends with Annie, Claudia and Rosie. The three of them remained close throughout their lives.
OPTION 2) – Eulogy style
Had Joan arranged today …
… you may have noticed a few subtle differences.
For a start, it is highly likely that she’d have reserved the front row of the Church …
… for horses!
Because Joan and I were very happily married for over fifty years …
… but she spent more time in the stables than she ever did with me!
It is no secret that this passion started early. In Totteridge.
Annie, Claudia and Rose will remember she and her father, Simon, walking hand-in-hand to the stables twice weekly …
… initially for a chat …
… and then, from the age of six …
… for riding lessons.
A celebration of life
The two options are written very differently. But more fundamental than the style, is the content they have chosen to use. The first is a factual summary, the second adds some colour, some humour, and an emotional connection to the audience. It’s a story that brings the facts to life. We, the audience, want to hear more.
We may live in the ‘post truth’ age (!), but I am not suggesting that you ignore the facts in your eulogy, simply that they are no more than ‘evidence’ in the story of someone’s life. When you leave the service, and mill around outside, chatting about the deceased, a great eulogy will act as a trigger for conversations about memories shared. It is only in very rare circumstances that the funeral is not a celebration of life. That is exactly what a eulogy should be. You may wish to hand-out a written obituary to the mourners containing a more detailed history.
The eulogy is the most personal and emotional type of speech. There is an argument for limiting the raw emotional stuff (if only to spare the speaker a torrid time – something we cover in more detail here). But the eulogy should never drain the life and energy from a life well lived.
Need help with a eulogy or commemorative speech?
We are able to review (and write from scratch) eulogies at very short notice. Please email through your draft for a complimentary review, or call Seb on 020 3651 7351.