Pay your respects

I had the privilege of being one of several business associates asked to deliver a memorial eulogy recently for a prominent 35-year TEC member.

Sam Jacobsen, founder of PDQ Convenience stores, was a man of great presence and a true visionary ahead of his time.

What struck me was that each eulogy presented was poignant and captivating, but in different ways. This month, I’d like to share my thoughts on what makes a great eulogy. If you’re ever called upon to deliver one, these tips will help you prepare.

A brief biography

Describe pertinent highlights from the individual’s early years. Note special accomplishments in things such as sports, academics and extra-curricular activities. Include, if appropriate:

  • Heritage – family tree information.
  • Early work interests.
  • Social or volunteer involvement.
  • Marriage history, children and grandchildren.
  • Work history and accomplishments.
  • Hobbies, including unusual travel experiences.
  • Participation in the military.
  • Public recognition received.

In each case, the amount of detail provided should focus on stories. Rather than just a chronological report, find tidbits of interesting information associated with the person’s life journey that might be unknown to many people in the audience but bring fond memories to the family.

Use names of others who have formed a supporting cast over the years to illuminate sides of his or her life that corroborate your remarks in the form of “silent witnesses” to what you are describing.

Enduring personal characteristics

This is the most important part of a eulogy because it captures the true essence of the deceased. Here are five questions to get you thinking about this:

  • How would you describe the person’s basic life character?
  • How would you describe their “driving force” as it would apply to family, friends and their work environment?
  • How would you characterize their values and belief systems?
  • How would you describe their impact on others in their lives?
  • What was his/her “light side” like?

Once again, in each case, a simple example or a story helps to solidify the point. Recalling a name or two to illustrate the point makes your comments more alive and vivid. In other words, the more personalized you can make your summary of personal characteristics, the more memorable is the eulogy.

Religious or spiritual orientation

It’s important to differentiate between a person who was deeply religious and active in the religious community versus someone who had a passionate spiritual commitment but wasn’t an active participant in formalized religion. Both are worthy of recognition and comment.

Charitable giving

Describe significant charitable contributions or their participation in voluntary community programs. Quotes from benefactors add a personal dimension.

General logistics

Having the proper set-up for a eulogy is just as important as the words you say. Whether there are 30 or 300 people in the audience, you want to reach each one of them with your tribute to the deceased. A few ideas:

  • Make sure the sound system, if required, is adequate.
  • Make sure the point from which you are speaking is clearly visible to everyone.
  • Your audience shouldn’t be able to see your notes or script.
  • Your own personal dress should be appropriate and consistent with the family’s desires. Some may wish it to be a somber occasion, others more of a celebration or party atmosphere.
  • Making eye contact with family members during the eulogy is, perhaps, most important.
  • Recording the eulogy is, of course, a family option.

Multiple eulogy presenters

It isn’t unusual to have several people designated to present remarks. Although it isn’t always possible, it helps to coordinate with the other presenters to prevent unnecessary duplication.

This speaks directly to the time issue. The most effective eulogies are brief, about 10 minutes or less when there are multiple presenters. Once the eulogy exceeds 30 minutes, the audience becomes less attentive.

Make it memorable

I’ve seen maybe 20 eulogies or memorial events in my life, and each one had its own personality.

I can still remember what some speakers said 20 years ago. But if you asked me to recall what was said at other eulogies, I couldn’t tell you.

The most important point, of course, is the meaning and emotional value that the immediate family gains. This should be the primary objective of a eulogy.

Until next month, while I hope you aren’t called on to give a eulogy anytime soon, remember these tips when the time comes.

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