Understanding Eulogies

by Speaking Tips | May 24, 2004

Some are long, and some are short. Some are deeply theological while others scarcely mention the name of God or even rail against deity. They are the final words of tribute spoken about people upon their death--the eulogies of the famous and the beloved.

An important thing to realize is that eulogies of the dead must help the living. "Funerals are not for the deceased, who have already been released from the limitations of this world," Margaret Peale Everett said at her father's 1993 funeral. "Funerals are for the rest of us - those family and friends and admirers who are left behind. We grieve; we feel loss; we have to adjust to a new reality."

Eulogies teach not only by what is said but also by what is not said. Their insights and blind spots are worth remembering for the honor they give to the departed and for the contribution they make to our understanding of history.

The best eulogists capture the essence of a person's inner being. For example, President Richard Nixon spoke of President Dwight Eisenhower by recalling Eisenhower's own words in a speech shortly after V-E Day: "I come from the heart of America." Nixon added: "Perhaps no one sentence could better sum up what Dwight Eisenhower meant to a whole generation of Americans. He did come from the heart of America, not only from its geographical heart but from its spiritual heart."

Other eulogists lay down historical markers of the contributions made by the deceased. Such is the case with Martin Luther King Jr.'s eulogy by Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College. Mays said of King: "He died striving to desegregate and integrate America to the end that this great nation of ours, born in revolution and blood, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all mean are created free and equal, will truly become the lighthouse of freedom where none will be denied because his skin is black and none favored because his eyes are blue; where our nation will be militarily strong but perpetually at peace; economically secure but just; learned but wise; where the poorest--the garbage collectors--will have bread enough and to spare; where no one will be poorly housed; each educated up to his capacity; and where the richest will understand the meaning of empathy. This was his dream, and the end toward which he strove."

Eulogies can also call people to better living. In eulogizing Martin Luther King, for example, Mays exhorted the congregation: "No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else's time."

And sometimes eulogists best express the character of their subject by saying what the deceased might have said about themselves. Of the comedian George Burns, movie executive Irving Fein noted: "As he often said, he knew entrances and exits. And last Saturday, he knew it was time to go."

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