Finding the Right Words

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” –Marc Antony, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Planning a memorial service or a funeral is something that, sooner or later, most adults will be faced with. A parent or a sibling, a partner or a close friend will die and the question arises, “Who will deliver the eulogy?”

Who, indeed.

Once that has been decided, the next question is, “What should I say?”

What, indeed.

It can be extremely difficult creating a eulogy for someone we love, because most of us have a lifetime that is, well, full. Full of little and big things, goldfish and dandelions and trips to the Grand Canyon and seeing your first shooting star. It means agonizing heartbreak and intense sadness and incredible glee. Summing up your own life is virtually impossible; how does one do it for someone else?

When we lose someone, there can be the temptation to gloss over their imperfections, to try to remember them without faults (“She was the most wonderful person who ever lived! Never a cross word!”)  but of course that isn’t true. We are, as human beings, fundamentally and wonderfully flawed. We can love each other and drive each other crazy at the same time. (Think of your spouse or best friend, whom you love dearly but whose habit of, say, pocketing all the sugar packets on the table at the IHop makes you want to scream.) Separating the warp and weft of someone’s life leaves us with the lovely on one side and the unlovable on the other, but that isn’t a true picture of who they were or how they lived.  Can we forget the way Uncle Joe screamed abuse at the TV when he disagreed with an umpire, or the way cousin Eileen sang the national anthem off-key at the Kiwanis picnic?  More to the point, would we want to? Why forget the very things that made them who they were?

In the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, Matthew eulogizes his partner Gareth with realism and affection, touching on the reminiscences of friends (“Fat seems to be a word people most connected with him. Terribly rude also rang a lot of bells… On the other hand, some of you have been kind enough to ring me to tell me that you loved him, which I know he’d be thrilled to hear ”) and concluding with W.H. Auden’s poem Funeral Blues:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

 And although that is just a scene from a romantic comedy, it sums up a life and a character and the way he was loved and regarded.  Isn’t that the point of a eulogy?

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” Edward Kennedy said in his eulogy for his older brother, Senator Robert Kennedy; that is probably a good guide for anyone whom we wish to memorialize. Let us remember them for all they were, with their gifts and their faults, just as we loved them in life.

But it’s probably acceptable to leave out the bit about the sugar packets at the IHop.

~~Mary Gibbons

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