When it Matters Most
There are endless advantages to being a confident public speaker.
One of these is the ability to speak at any occasion.
Twice in the past four years I’ve given the eulogy at the funeral of someone very close to me.
In February 2010, I spoke at my dad’s funeral in Surrey. Dad was 67 when he passed away. He was a very popular man in the local community. Over 100 people attended his funeral. We booked a longer time-slot to accommodate all of the tributes (and crowd control!), and dad’s coffin was carried into the chapel behind a Scots piper. It was a wonderful service, many of the mourners remarking that it was the happiest funeral they had ever attended(!).
In January 2014, we said goodbye to my granny. She had lived to the ripe old age of 95, out-living all of her six siblings, her husband, my father and most of her friends. There were just nine of us in the chapel (14 if you include the various staff and reverend), but still the occasion was both a opportunity for grateful rememberance and a time to reflect on the loss of an amazing woman.
Speaking at a funeral is not easy
It doesn’t matter how experienced a public speaker you are, speaking at the funeral of someone you love is not easy.
We call the kind of speech we make at a funeral a ‘eulogy’ which is another word for ‘tribute’.
It is not at all like any other kind of public speaking, yet a eulogy does share one vital trait with all other types of speech: it is all about the audience.
The eulogy’s job
Usually, when we address a group, our main concern is to make sure they understand our message and leave with a hunger to act upon our calls to action.
A eulogy, however, demands of us something different.
The main purpose of a eulogy is to offer the mourners comfort through the sharing of warm and honest memories of the person who has died, acknowledging as many of the mourners as possible so that everyone feels a strong sense of connection to the person who has passed away.
Creating the content of the eulogy is usually fairly easy. Ask a number of people who knew the person well but in different contexts to give you a few anecdotes that were ‘typical’ of the person, preferably funny or inspiring stories that will move others to remember why their sadness is so well justified.
Crying (the thing that makes speaking at a funeral so hard!)
Funerals can be incredibly stressful for a congregation, particularly in a culture such as Britain’s where public crying isn’t exactly encouraged.
If the honour of delivering the eulogy has fallen to you, then as well as ensuring what you say is an accurate reflection on the person’s life, you also have to achieve what most people in your situation would find impossible: You must not cry.
At least, not while you’re trying to speak.
It’s an unfortunate anatomical design fault that we cannot speak and cry at the same time. So if we’re to speak at all, it’s really important that we take responsibility for ensuring that we master our emotions for those few minutes when we need to speak.
This is not easy.
It takes a very stoical person to stand by the coffin of someone they love and speak about them without breaking down.
To make it even harder, the speaker has to face the mourners, most of whom will be very upset. We humans are empathetic towards one-another. When people you care about are crying it’s extremely difficult to resist the urge to join in!
Help is at hand
A successful eulogy happens when the speaker is prepared.
Here are some tips to help you to prepare if you have been asked to speak at someone’s funeral.
1. Treat it like a job
I approach a eulogy the same way I approach any public talk by assuming the mantle of the confident, warm, empathetic, charismatic and above all ‘present’ public speaker.
By doing so I find I can put some emotional distance between myself and the occasion while remaining firmly and fully ‘present’.
When speaking at a funeral feels like a professional task it is easier to reach inside ourselves and draw on our professional persona. Our professional persona (don’t worry about how to create it, you already have one) is the person we are when we are working, the version of ourselves who is sincere but slightly detached in order to make sure the job gets done.
Before I speak at a funeral, I take a moment to say to myself, ‘Julie, this is what you do for a living and you are good at it’. That’s all it takes for me to summon my professional persona and it really makes a difference.
2. Working with your own powerful emotions
I have been to funerals and watched friends of the person who has died struggle to deliver a eulogy because once they found themselves standing by the coffin looking into a sea of sad faces all composure was lost.
This is absolutely understandable but if you are the one speaking you must prepare yourself for this very likely emotional reaction.
You may believe you are someone who would never cry in front of others, but it takes an incredible amount of self-control to maintain your composure when people whom you’ve never known to cry openly sob in front of you.
Once you have written your eulogy rehearse it by yourself in real-time.
When you do so, imagine as vividly as you can that you are standing in front of an audience that is extremely distressed.
Take a few moments to notice how that atmosphere feels. You may notice a feeling of tears welling behind your eyes and a downturn in your mouth. Your breathing may change and your head may fill with thoughts of your loss that make you feel desperately sad.
Feel all of this.
All of these feelings are right. Don’t try to push them away. They are symbols of your love and respect for the person you have lost and the empathy you feel for the people who are hurting.
However, tears will stop you from speaking.
To speak, you must acknowledge how you feel, then gently let those feelings of sadness go, just for the few minutes of the eulogy.
These feelings are allowed to return once you have finished speaking and you will warmly welcome them back then.
But for now, they are not helpful.
As you gently let those thoughts go, replace them with memories of the person who has died that make you laugh or smile.
Think how happy or proud they would be to see you delivering this wonderful eulogy just for them and their loved ones.
Select for yourself a few memories that bring you that feeling of happiness. When you rehearse your eulogy and feelings of sadness become overwhelming acknowledge your sad thoughts but let them go, replacing them with one of the happy memories that makes you smile or laugh. Try this and practise it over and over.
When the time comes to give the eulogy for real, you will be able to call on this technique to bring your thoughts back to the present and the wonderful tribute you are paying which is bringing comfort to you and to your loved one’s family and friends.
3. You’re part of a team
A funeral is all about teamwork.
There is the family and friends, the person leading the service (religious or humanist) and the funeral directors.
You are all part of the team that will ensure the service goes well.
Get to know the person leading the service. He or she performs at funerals all the time and there is no emotion or worry you can have that he or she hasn’t faced before.
Those responsible for leading the service want you to do well. If you feel that you cannot continue, you can ask them to take over with the reading, for example (for me, the thought of a stranger reading my words at my dad’s funeral was enough to help me keep going!).
This is one of those occasions where you can be sure everyone is rooting for you to do well.
4. Remember to perform (authentically)
There will probably be formal readings during the service and these will be pretty flat (I always think of these – and the hymns – as a good opportunity to blow my nose!).
The eulogy is different as it is the part of the service that everyone anticipates.
When you have written the eulogy and you are ready to practise it put as much passion and performance into your practise as you can.
Funerals are a time to say goodbye but they are also an opportunity to say thanks and to remember those things that made the person who has died so special. Dig deep within yourself to find the energy and emotion that will put joy into your words.
Remember that it’s not a race. Take your time, allow yourself to smile and pause to reflect when that feels like the right thing to do. So you can do this it’s vital that you don’t write too much. Prepare not more than five minutes of content and time your rehearsals so you have 10% of space to play with just in case you need it on the day.
5. Look at the audience
This is hard. You are trying to keep from crying so how can you look out into an audience, some of whom are in floods of tears?
But it’s so important that you make that connection.
This is why the mental preparation described at point 2 is so helpful.
You are there to give comfort to the mourners. You will notice how the person leading ther service shook hands with everyone when they arrived and looked into their eyes, making a warm and personal connection with them. You can do the same.
Look at them with compassion.
When they meet your eyes gently smile.
You are channelling the comfort that they need.
Although you are the person standing at the front, this isn’t about you, it’s about them. Do look at them and during your mental rehearsal imagine what that may be like for you and for them. For you, yes, it may feel a bit uncomfortable but for them it will bring peace and comfort that only you in that moment can provide.
While it is tempting to read the eulogy from your prepared script, look up from your notes when you possibly can. My granny loved technology. At her funeral I spoke from an iPad. She’d have loved it and it was a very effective ‘prop’!
Maintain as much eye contact with the audience as you possibly can as your eulogy will seem more authentic and you will seem more sincere too.
6. The ending
The start and the ending of a eulogy are the hardest parts for the person speaking.
The start is difficult because you’re finding your feet, so start strongly, as you mean to go on.
However, emotions rise when we are approaching the final sentence because we know that this is an ending, not just of our eulogy, but of our very personal connection with this ceremony of grief. It is completely appropriate to feel a wave of sadness at this point, but still, we must finish our words.
Here is some advice to help you to finish in the right way.
If you practise your eulogy three times) using the techniques described above to gently and temporarily acknowledge and dismiss your sadness) yet still can’t end it without breaking down: re-word the ending.
While you may feel it’s important to end with something powerful, if you can’t get the words out you risk ending with no ending at all.
Instead, go for a modest, simple ending in the interests of reaching the close of the eulogy and end on a smile.
It’s not a test
A eulogy is not a test of your public speaking abilities, it is an opportunity to pay tribute to someone you love and to give comfort to other mourners.
I’ve prepared an audio recording with more tips on how to speak at a funeral below:
Even if you don’t imagine you will be asked to speak at a funeral in the near future knowing this advice now will help you when the time comes.
It’s not just an honour to speak at the funeral of someone you love. It’s also a job with a specific focus. By ensuring that you are prepared to do a great job, you will bring comfort to the friends and family of the person who has died. You will also bring comfort to yourself, knowing that when it mattered most you were there, doing the hardest and most loving job of all.