In 2017, Kristine Keller and Marisa Polansky founded Speech Tank, a speechwriting company for special occasions. Mostly that meant weddings, and before long, they felt they had cracked the code on the perfect toast. Then they got their first request for a eulogy. Here’s what they learned in the process…
First, when writing eulogies, we learned to listen. We heard stories about about puppy love in old-age homes, firefly chases with barefooted grandchildren, and the secret to Dane County’s blue-ribbon chocolate chip cookies (which we dare not reveal here). And as we picked up our pens, we began to realize that wedding speeches and eulogies are not altogether different. They both originate from the same place: love. Joyous, grateful, life-affirming love.
If you’re reading this as you mourn, we’re so sorry you’re in need of our advice. And while this is advice on eulogy writing, the truth is that the only “right” words are yours, so here are some tips to help you find them.
1) Think of Prompts
If it feels impossible to sum up a life, that’s because it is. Instead take it in slivers. Imagine you were writing one of those student-of-the-week fill-in-the-blank reports about this person. What was their favorite way to spend a weekend? What was their life motto? What made them laugh the hardest? What was one thing they taught you? What reminds you of them when you’re not together? Think back to the moments you remember in eulogies. They’re likely all small, specific details. Here are some we love: an 80-year-old woman was remembered by her children’s friends as the parent who invited the whole class to birthday parties; a son thought of his mother every time he ate his bowl of cereal sitting down instead of standing up, heeding her advice to “treat yourself nicely”; a speech giver told the audience to think of her father every time they smelled grilled burgers, a sign that their dad was hosting one of his beloved backyard BBQs. In the end it’s those seemingly insignificant moments that end up being the most memorable. So, whatever comes up, write down.
2) Dig in
Now that you’ve got something on the page, revisit it. Be as specific as possible. Do you remember one special weekend in particular? How did they translate their life motto into action? What made that joke hysterical? It’s extremely tough to be vulnerable especially while grieving, but instead of telling through platitudes like, “she was the most loyal person on the planet,” tell through examples like “when I got sick with some mysterious grade-school illness, he sat on the cold bathroom floor to warm up the tiles since I’d be spending all night there.” Or instead of “she showed me the value of hard work,” talk about the time she spontaneously let you skip school, but instead of taking you to the latest installment of Harry Potter, she proudly brought you to her new corner office.
3) Find a Theme
When you look at someone’s life, chances are they were fairly consistent, so examine your stories for a through line. Maybe that person bucked clothing trends in favor of loud colors, chose to be an artist in a line of doctors, or insisted on driving to every 6 a.m. hockey practice and attending every single game, home or away. Your theme might be as simple as “she was meant to be a parent.” Once you identify your theme, you’ll be able to see which stories support the theme and build an outline from there. The best speeches include a few stories, and they’re framed by one overarching narrative. You do not have to cover an entire life: It is enough to be a highlight reel told from your perspective. Because remember, no one else has that perspective. (As long as we’re talking structure, it’s good form to acknowledge family and close friends sitting in the front rows of the service, and also to introduce yourself and how you knew the person you’re eulogizing.)
4) Don’t Be Afraid of Humor
Sure, portions of your eulogy should be lofty and serious. It’s what often feels fitting for the moment. But eulogies are about life not death. So, if you can find light in the darkness, let it shine through. One client told us a story of how her grandfather always did the ole quarter-behind-her-ear bit. Well into her teen years, she pretended to be surprised thinking it’s what he wanted. Only later did she discover he was only performing the joke to watch her do her terrible “I’m surprised” face! Of course, not every joke is fair game. Don’t tell inside jokes, don’t reveal their most embarrassing moment, and beware of saying something that paints the eulogized in a particularly bad light.
5) Remember: It’s an Honor
If you cry uncontrollably, or fumble the words, or suddenly get the strangest urge to sing their favorite song — do it, say it, sing it. There is no right way to go about grieving, and there’s certainly no right way to hold up that grief to others. Be genuine. Be yourself. It’s why you’re giving the eulogy in the first place. There is one thing, though, that’s the same with all eulogies…it won’t be easy. It may be unfathomably painful and feel like you can’t push through. But remember that this the ultimate way to honor your friend or family member who you miss so deeply. It helps to think of that person listening and being grateful to you for this last gesture of love and honor. Because maybe they are.
Thank you, Marisa and Kristine. To anyone missing someone today, we’re so sorry for your loss.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)