The Art of Giving a Eulogy – Share the Best Stories and Get Personal About It

Over my long career as a funeral director I’ve heard more than my fair share of eulogies. In a sense, eulogies are like taking a scenic drive through a life.

There are times the
view seems so familiar, and other times when one may be struck by the beauty in
front of them; beauty that they were not expecting to see, or never noticed

Such was the case
in 2013, when I heard what was to become my favorite eulogy. It was given by
the then mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, for the city’s former
mayor, Edward I. Koch.

Bloomberg was on
top of his game that day as he stood on the bimah of Manhattan’s venerable
Temple Emanu-El and addressed a filled-to-capacity crowd with warmth and humor.
Bloomberg remembered Koch as New York City’s “quintessential mayor” and spoke
of Koch’s extensive career as a public official, his love for the city of New
York, and his contributions to its safety and wellbeing.

The crowd laughed
as Bloomberg recounted incidents from Koch’s colorful past, such as the time
Koch stood at the entrance ramp to the Queensboro Bridge, recently re-named for
him, yelling, “Welcome to my bridge!” to approaching cars.

Koch being Koch, he stood in the freezing cold for another
20 minutes, even after the cameras stopped rolling, shouting out the
welcome. Bloomberg also traced Koch’s life as a lawyer, author, and
television personality after his three-term mayoralty came to an end.

But the most moving
moment came when Bloomberg underscored Koch’s pride in his faith. Bloomberg
recited the words that, at Koch’s request, would be etched into his tombstone: My
father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” They were the last words
spoken by slain journalist Daniel Pearl.

Markedly less
impressive was the eulogy that followed, presented by former United States
President Bill Clinton. To the discomfited looks of many, Clinton shared a
correspondence he once had with Koch about Viagra. If, indeed, eulogies are a
roadmap for life, Clinton’s comments had many wondering, “How did we get here?”

True Words

The word eulogy
derives from classical Greek and means “true words.” In ancient Greece it was
customary that men of “approved wisdom and eminent reputation” be selected to
eulogize the dead.

Fittingly, it was
Pericles, who, in 431 B.C., eulogized the Athenian soldiers who lost their
lives in the Peloponnesian War. Today, it is usually a colleague, close friend,
or family member who is given the honor.

Eulogies have been
the subject of three books by author Cyrus M. Copeland, who was inspired to
explore the subject after giving one for his late father, an experience he
describes as cathartic.

His first book, Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, includes the eulogies of such diverse individuals as Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Karl Marx.

It also contains
the eulogy Madonna gave for fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1997. Madonna
captured the attention of the audience with her very first words: “I slept in
Gianni Versace’s bed.”

Like me, Copeland has a favorite eulogy. It was the one given by the late writer Pat Conroy for his father Colonel Donald Conroy, a.k.a., the movie character “The Great Santini,” and it appears in Copeland’s second book, A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit.

“I’ve read hundreds
of farewells and studied the art form. Conroy’s was a master class in
remembrance,” said Copeland. “He tells stories, he is honest, he
finds the bigger themes of his father’s life, he makes us laugh.”

And laugh is what I and hundreds of others did during the eulogy
given last spring at the funeral of Queens County’s longest-serving district
attorney, Richard Brown. Brown’s son-in-law, Bruce Foodman, shared a
recollection about how intimidated he felt when he first married into the
family of the eminent justice.

He was not sure how
to address his formidable new father- in-law. Brown, sensing his discomfort,
assured him that “Richard is fine.” Puzzled, and thinking someone had been
ill, Foodman responded by asking who Richard was.

It’s Not About You

Unlike Foodman’s
humorously self-effacing recollection, some speakers can’t help but talk about
themselves, instead of focusing on the deceased. We have likely all sat through
eulogies listening to speakers share how smart, attractive, accomplished, etc.
the deceased thought they were.

Writer Larry
Gelbart, who created the iconic television show M*A*S*H, wrote the forward for
Copeland’s, A Wonderful Life, cautioning
us to resist the temptation to make the eulogy about ourselves:

“A eulogy is not
meant to be a vehicle for self-aggrandizement. Try pressing the shift key as
little as possible when typing the letter i.

Still, Copeland says that “it’s not a mistake to get personal – just as long as it ties into the themes of the deceased’s life. This
is what distinguishes a eulogy from an obit – the personal imprint
they left on the person behind the microphone.” 

Getting personal is
just what Dominick Yezzo, an administrative judge in New York City, did when he
gave a eulogy for his late brother, James, this past January.

“Having been
privileged to know him at the beginning and very end of his life, I connected
myself to him intimately and removed myself to talk about him,” said Yezzo, who
views the giving of eulogies as being “holy” and having a “sacred base.”

Yezzo, speaking on
behalf of his large family, wanted to “let everyone know who his brother was.”
So, when preparing the eulogy, he was mindful of incorporating aspects of his
brother’s life that everyone could understand and relate to, including his
Catholic school education and lifelong devotion to the New York Yankees.

Writing a Meaningful Eulogy

“A good eulogy should have at least one good story,” says
Copeland. And for maximum impact, Copeland suggests relating a
“recognizable truth.” “This,” he writes, “is what binds us together, and
connects the eulogized to the dearly departed in a meaningful fashion.”

A stirring example
of this was a recent eulogy I heard by a young woman who spoke about her father
by telling the mourners, “My father made me feel loved, special, and secure,
each and every day of my life.”

In Copeland’s third, and most recent book, Passwords: 7 Steps to Writing a Memorable Eulogy, he shares ideas to serve as the foundation for the making of a great eulogy. He uses Conroy’s eulogy for his father as an example: “… begin memorably, tell stories, tell the truth, get personal, find a big moment, and end strongly.”

Copeland, who often travels around the country to speak at
conventions on the art of eulogizing, has a succinct answer to the question of
why we need eulogies.

As he put it in Passwords, “A great eulogy assures us
that our loved ones will endure in our collective memories. The more specific
and real the remembrances, the stronger the bridge.”

Have you given a
eulogy? For whom? How did you go about the task? What did you share? What was
the reaction from those who attended? Please share any tips from your personal