Guide on the Side – Final Words: Delivering a Eulogy

Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

The death of a family member, close friend or colleague, whether expected or unexpected, always comes as a shock and stirs unfamiliar emotions of loss. We are never ready for the passing and even less ready to speak at the funeral or memorial service. Yet delivering a eulogy is a rewarding and healing experience. The trick is to know how to prepare. A eulogy is a great gift–to the deceased, other mourners and yourself. Offer it whenever there is an opportunity.

A eulogy is more difficult than other types of speaking because:

  • Waves of grief can sweep over us without warning making it physically difficult to speak.
  • Emotions interfere with our ability to think or remember what we want to say.
  • Public display of crying is considered a social taboo by many.
  • It must be delivered when we are still in the denial phase of the death.
  • Preparation time is very short.
  • The death may test our faith, evoke feelings of powerlessness or guilt.
  • Our culture does not prepare people for death as part of the natural life cycle.
  • There is little information on eulogies unlike other types of public speaking.

A eulogy is rewarding because it:

  • Creates a final positive affirmation of the passing.
  • Helps the healing and grieving process.
  • Brings a sense of closure to you and other mourners.
  • Puts inchoate feelings into words.
  • Celebrates a person’s life.
  • Highlights your best memories of the deceased.
  • Stimulates positive memories in other mourners.
  • Praises the person and some aspect of the person’s life.
  • Expresses your honest feelings of gratitude.
  • Affirms what we may learn from the person.
  • Is a final conversation with the deceased.

How to go about preparing a eulogy:

  • Decide that you can and will do it. This decision can be made long before the passing.
  • Know that you must write out what you plan to say in spoken language rather than written language. (See Guide on the Side: Speaking is from Venus, Writing is from Mars)
  • Find out if others are also preparing eulogies so that the memories can be orchestrated and cover all aspects of the person’s life (work, family, hobbies)
  • Ask others, especially people unable to be at the service, for their memories/stories which you might use
  • Do not attempt to chronicle the person’s entire life; share only a slice that you think is most memorable
  • Keep it positive
  • Keep it short, between 4 to 8 minutes
  • Use post-it notes to randomly collect your memories and find a theme (loved a challenge, legendary practical joker, great party giver)
  • After you identify the theme, select two or three related stories and begin to compose sentences writing in your speaking voice
  • Polish the language until it sounds like you talking and then memorize it.
  • Like other speeches, the eulogy has three parts: opening, middle and closing.
    • Opening: Identify yourself, your relationship to the deceased and your theme
    • Body: Include several personal stories relating to the theme
    • End: Return to the theme using a memorable image, metaphor, prop, quote from the deceased, line from a song or a short verse.


“We are here to celebrate the life of xxx. My name is yyy and xxx was my boss for five years. I have many fond memories of working with him. He was a highly regarded judge but the memories I want to share with you is how he made a difference in my life as a triathlete coach. xxx was not an athlete. He didn’t swim, run nor bike. He didn’t even workout (some of you might think as I often did, that he should have), however he was a competitor and knew that competition is won in the head and heart. Let me tell you… [Story 1 and story 2].” [Close] “I am competing in my first Iron Man in 2 weeks and xxx will be there for me every mile, the best coach anyone ever had have.”


Although you may get an adrenaline rush before other types of speeches, the nervousness usually lasts only a few seconds and once you connect with the audience, you become comfortable. In an eulogy, you may lose control and begin to openly weep at any time. However, the two places that are of greatest concern are the opening and closing. One thing you can do is to design the eulogy so that emotionally loaded ideas do not come at these points. (Note in the example the opening is factual rather than emotional as the stories are likely to be.) As for weeping, be sure you have kleenex or handkerchiefs in your pockets. If you are overcome, pause, take a few deep breaths, drink some water (make sure you have it beforehand) and proceed when you are ready. The audience will understand that the emotion you show is natural.


Humor will relax yourself and the audience. Base it on the person’s foibles or characteristics. For instance, Peggy was a person who could get things done–in the community, at home and at work. She didn’t mind upsetting people to achieve her goals. Her ex-husband began her eulogy with this statement: “There isn’t a person here today who knew Peggy who at sometime or another wasn’t mad as hell at her–including me and our two sons.” There was a roar of laughter. Even Peggy would have laughed. It was true. Peggy could be a pain but she knew how to accomplish things no one else could. Even when family, friends and neighbors were angry with her, they loved her. Her ex-husband, sons and neighbors all picked up on the “mad as hell” theme with their stories.

Helpful Hints

  • Take the text or outline of the text with you to speak. Even though you have memorized what you plan to say, emotion can cause you to unexpectedly blank out.
  • Print the text in a font large enough to read easily.
  • Take copies of the text as others, especially family, may want a copy.
  • Avoid raising the question “why?”
  • Do not rail against the accident/disease/unfairness that caused the death.
  • Avoid preparing an obituary or memorial for publication, both which summarize total life achievements rather than a only personalized segment. (There is a separate time and place for these.)
  • Bring props such as a favorite tennis racket, hat or musical instrument to invoke memories.
  • Add Garry Schaeffer’s “A Labor of Love: How to Write a Eulogy”, 2d edition to your reference collection. See for the online version or hardcopy. This is one of the very few resources on eulogies and it is very inexpensive. Bookstores and libraries have little if anything for immediate guidance. It is comforting to find what you need on your bookshelf to help you find your final words.
Posted in: Communication Skills, Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills