The latest episode of HBO’s “Succession” saw the Roy children struggling with their grief while attending the funeral of their media mogul father.
After an unscheduled eulogy from Logan Roy’s brother, the late magnate’s youngest son, Roman, takes to the lectern to deliver prepared remarks ― only to completely fall apart. Stepping in for “the Grim Weeper,” Roman’s brother Kendall and his sister, Shiv, proceed to share their own reflections on Logan’s life and legacy as a businessperson and father.
It’s one of the most emotional episodes of the series. Although most viewers cannot relate to the lavish lifestyles and ruthless business dealings portrayed on “Succession,” the experience of mourning a loved one is much more universal. And grief is often felt more intensely when a eulogy or some other public tribute is involved.
“Eulogies are enormously difficult because they typically need to be written on short notice amid intense pain, numbness, exhaustion, confusion or lack of focus,” said Alexandra Levine, the founder of speech ghostwriting business The Toastess. “There’s also the pressure of wanting whatever you say to ‘do justice’ to the person you’re remembering.”
As with other deeply poignant and personal endeavours, the best approach to giving a eulogy is to be thoughtful and genuine.
“There are no mistakes in eulogies,” Levine said. “What the speaker chooses to say as they cope will always vary based on their relationship to the person lost, the circumstances of the death and other factors. That said, there are some things to remember.”
I asked Levine as well as other etiquette and speech experts to share their advice for writing and delivering a nice eulogy for a loved one.
Start by jotting down all your thoughts.
“When it comes to the beginning, my number-one tip would be to sit down somewhere quiet and gather your thoughts together,” said Aubrey Bauer of Eulogies by Aubrey.
“When you allow yourself that sacred time, so many memories ― some that you haven’t thought of in years ― are likely to come flooding back to you. Write these down, along with any other thoughts and memories you happen to think of. It doesn’t have to be pretty yet ― just get it all out on paper.”
Rather than putting pressure on yourself to craft a workable draft, grab a notebook or some loose paper and engage in a free-writing session.
“My advice is to scribble down all your feelings and remembrances on a piece of paper ― writing sideways and in the margins,” said Molly-Ann Leikin, a speechwriter at Anything With Words. “Keep all your scribbles. Don’t erase anything. I recommend writing longhand first. That way, your feelings come down from your heart, through your fingers to your pen, and it’s much more personal than typing on a computer or texting.”
Your scribbles can include big ideas, descriptions and emotions, as well as the little things you recall about the deceased.
“Remembering small details about a person’s life ― even if they seem mundane or inconsequential ― are key to helping you paint a large and vivid portrait of who they were,” Levine said. “What were your loved one’s favourite things? The occasions they’d never miss? That saying they used to always say? Their biggest quirks? The things that made them tick? The more concrete, the better. These memories may even draw a smile.”
Take time to process your emotions and memories.
“Before you agree to give a eulogy, though, take stock of your own emotions,” said JP Reynolds, a wedding and memorial ceremony officiant and business communications coach. “Are you emotionally strong enough to offer words that truly honour the deceased? You do not want to be Roman, who wanted to eulogise his father so as to puff up his own stature. His emotional unawareness had embarrassing consequences for him.”
Make sure you’re giving yourself the space to grieve. Set aside private time to remember your lost loved one and how they impacted your life.
“If you’ve ever interviewed or recorded your loved one, try listening again and don’t hesitate to lean on that footage,” Levine said. “The things they’ve said in the past may take on new meaning in mourning, and including their voice through direct quotes can be incredibly powerful.”
For example, when I delivered a eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, I drew on a voicemail she had left me during a hard time in my life. She quoted a specific Bible verse to bring me comfort, which I shared with everyone who gathered to mourn her at the service.
“Gather thoughts, memories and stories from others in your loved one’s circle that may be represented in the eulogy as well,” Bauer advised.
“Remembering small details about a person’s life ― even if they seem mundane or inconsequential ― are key to helping you paint a large and vivid portrait of who they were.”
– Alexandra Levine, speech ghostwriter at The Toastess
Use questions as a guide.
If you’re still having trouble coming up with the words to fill your eulogy, approach it as a series of answers to prompts.
“Here are some questions to ask yourself,” said Darcey Peterson, a professional speechwriter at Lasting Eulogies. “What three words most define your loved one? What made your loved one special? What’s your favourite story to share about them? What was their favourite story to share? What made them happy? What were they passionate about? What important lessons did you learn from them?”
Put yourself in the deceased person’s shoes and imagine what they might have wanted their eulogy to express. Also ask yourself who the audience for this eulogy will be.
“Consider who your loved one was in life, and consider the circle of people who will be there honouring that life,” Bauer said. “If the person was fun-loving and a partyer, and someone who never played by the rules, you are free to have a little more fun with your wording. If the person was older, more conservative or religious, consider your audience and what they are expecting to hear.”
As you answer these questions, look for themes that might help inform the format of the eulogy. You can craft a general outline and sprinkle memories and anecdotes throughout the middle before turning it into a rough draft. Write an opening in which you introduce yourself and your relationship to the deceased, and offer some concluding thoughts at the end. Once you feel good about your draft, ask someone else to review it.
Remember that a eulogy is different from an obituary.
“A eulogy is not a recitation of life accomplishments ― that is an obituary,” said Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert who goes by Mister Manners.
“It is a way of bringing the deceased’s legacy to life. Share stories that are delightful, inspiring, funny, impressive, touching. By providing insights that are not commonly known, you will be doing your part to create a complete picture of a life well led. You are also helping establish the legacy of a person whom younger generations may not have known as well, if at all.”
Instead of listing the events of the person’s life, focus on the relationships they had and the way they made others feel. After all, there will be a lot of emotions in the room.
“At a funeral, and particularly at the burial, the goal is for closure,” Leikin said. “It’s also for gathering the rest of our families and friends together to bond together, so the loss doesn’t feel so devastating. We’re still here. We’re here for each other. Hug, cry, reconnect. Stay connected.”
You don’t have to pretend your loved one was perfect, but do your best to keep the tone positive yet personal.
“Try not to give a eulogy filled with just platitudes and adjectives,” Peterson said. “Tell your funny story. Tell your bittersweet story. The stories you share that demonstrate a quality are so much more powerful than just a list of qualities and accomplishments.”
For example, she recommended turning a sentence like “Aunt Jane was kind and she loved animals” into a specific memory.
“Consider instead: ‘I still remember summer vacations and overnights with Aunt Jane. I always loved helping her with her evening ritual of feeding the dogs and the birds, and even the stray neighbourhood cats ― all before we even sat down for our own dinner!’” Peterson said.
Resist the urge to make it about you.
“It’s imperative to remember that the person you’re eulogising ― not you ― is the protagonist of the story,” said Victoria Wellman, the founder of The Oratory Laboratory and author of the book “Before You Say Anything.”
“A lot of people can’t see beyond themselves when they’re speaking about someone they love ― it’s a frustrating irony. There is a fine but indelible line between talking about your experiences with someone and talking from your experience of them. The former should always serve a larger narrative than simply providing an opportunity to wax poetic about an experience no one else in the room can relate to.”
She recommended focusing on the specific things about the deceased that you will miss, rather than the fact that you will miss them. You’re the narrator of the story, not the co-star.
“If this seems hard to calculate, just read through what you’ve written and tally up how many times you wrote ‘I’ versus their name or pronoun,” Wellman added.
Don’t shy away from moments of humour.
“Don’t be afraid to use bits of well-placed humour,” Peterson said. “Humour is as universal as sadness. Humour and laughter can help us process grief very much in the same way as crying can.”
Some jokes might not be as appropriate as others, but comedy might actually match the tone of the event, depending on the person and circumstances of their death.
“Don’t forget that a eulogy is a celebration of someone’s life,” Wellman said. “Humour is incredibly unifying, so you should aim to bring a smile to the faces in the audience at least once.”
But don’t turn your eulogy into a standup routine or roast.
“Even professional comedians understand you need to know your audience,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, the president of Massachusetts-based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “This is not your chance to try out new material. It is completely acceptable to share a funny story, but be wary of a joke at the deceased’s expense.”
“Don’t forget that a eulogy is a celebration of someone’s life.”
– Victoria Wellman, author and founder of The Oratory Laboratory
Talk about the future, as well as the past.
“A eulogy can reflect on the future as much as on the past,” Levine said. “In addition to talking about who this person was and their life well lived, keep an eye toward the future by talking about what you will carry forward from this person and how you will honour them. You can highlight which of their traditions you’ll pass on, the values you’ll uphold, and the sayings or pieces of advice you’ll hold dear.”
She recommended sharing any signs that make you feel like they’re still with you. For example, Levine said she believes that ladybugs indicate her late grandmother’s presence.
“Let your eulogy be guided by your answer to two questions,” Reynolds said. “What is it you want people to remember and carry with them of this deceased person? What do you want them to do with that memory going forward in their own lives?”
He said the best way you can honour the dead is to be for others what that person was for you.
“End with what your commitment is to how you will honour the deceased,” Reynolds said. “People want to believe the everlasting hope: that life is good and worthy of our best.”
Don’t go on for too long.
“Common mistakes include going on and on and on too long,” Leikin said. “Less is more. If there’s only one speaker, keep it to three minutes. You can say a lot in that time. If there are several speakers, keep it to two minutes each.”
She recommended that each speaker address a different part of the deceased’s life or share their own personal remembrances.
Other experts suggested that three to five minutes or even as long as 10, could be appropriate as well. Just don’t risk losing people’s attention.
“Do not try to do too much in the eulogy,” Reynolds said. “No person’s life can be summed up in one eulogy. No one eulogy can capture the fullness, complexity and nuance of the deceased.”
Above all, make sure to prepare and practice.
“The most important thing is that a eulogy ― as with any speech ― requires preparation,” Wellman said. “Kendall’s improvised remarks about his father as a titan of industry were terrific, but no one pulls off a speech like that on the spot ― it’s the work of weeks in the HBO writers room.”
She emphasised that preparing a written speech is not inauthentic. It will give you enough time to think about what you’d like to include and then work that into a logical narrative framework. And once you’ve written your eulogy, you don’t have to completely memorise it. But you should take some time to practice your delivery.
“When you’re finished, read it out loud several times,” Peterson said. “Go slow; don’t rush through. Leave room for pauses when tender moments come up and you need to take a deep breath. It’s OK to get emotional. People expect that you will, so plan for it. There’s great power in a thoughtful pause. It shows your willingness to be genuine and vulnerable, and it will connect you to your audience.”
She suggested having a plan ready in case you become too overwhelmed by emotion to continue.
“Ask a trusted friend or family member if they could take over if that happens,” Peterson said. “Have a version of the eulogy written in the third person for them to read.”