Last writes

If you’re the family scribe, chances are you’ll be asked to produce (and deliver) a eulogy. Are you ready to speak of the dead?
By Roy Peter Clark | Published: December 30, 2013


LastWritesIf you are the family plumber, you come to expect a call when Cousin Clyde’s pipes spring a leak. When you are the family writer, you come to expect the call when Cousin Clyde’s arteries burst and someone asks you to write the eulogy.

The word eulogy comes from the Greeks and means “to praise,” literally, to speak “good words.”

Shakespeare’s Antony who protests to the Roman masses that he has come to “bury Caesar, not to praise him,” spends most of his famous oration firing up the rabble with a list of all the great things the late emperor had done for them.

If I had my choice, Shakespeare would write my eulogy, and Antony  would deliver it.

By my count, I’ve written five eulogies: one for my next-door neighbor Jack Leonard, a quadriplegic who died well beyond the life expectancy of someone with his injury; one for a teaching colleague Janie Guilbault, a beautiful young woman who died of cancer; one for my father Theodore Roosevelt Clark, and 60 days later for my father-in-law Russell Major; and one for my uncle and godfather Peter Marino, delivered in my absence by my brother Vincent.

My goal, when I write and deliver a eulogy, is to make my words the most memorable thing about the service, more memorable than the flag draped on the coffin, more memorable than Aunt Martha’s scandalous dress, more memorable than Uncle Tyler’s stream of tears.

I want the effect of my words to be so beneficial that a stranger will walk up to me outside of a small church in southern Rhode Island and ask me if I would please write his eulogy, too – which actually happened.

When I first accepted the duty of family eulogizer, I held the English major’s assumption that the eulogy was a genre, a form of story with a set of mostly fixed requirements. While there are common conventions and expectations, not one of them is prescribed. So a eulogy can be in the form of a poem, a song, a slide show.

In other words, the eulogizer has the freedom to create and present a text appropriate to the character of the dearly departed and the immediate needs of a grieving family. But freedom can be just another word for writer’s block. So, based upon my writing, reading and hearing thousands of words devoted to the dead, I offer these strategies that have worked for me in creating lively prose for those sitting in the pews.

1. Keep it short.

Short is relative, of course, but five to 10 minutes is a reasonable target. If it’s too long, your efforts will be wasted. If perceived as too short, it may actually reflect badly on the dead one, suggesting that he or she was not more interesting and word-worthy. For my uncle, I wrote about 800 words; for my father, 1,200, a range that seems right to me. If someone asks you to speak for “three minutes,” just nod your head and smile, but take the liberty to go to five. This is likely to be the most personal element of the ceremony and deserves the time you give it and the attention it receives.

2. Work from a written text.

This does not mean that you must read every word of your text, head bowed, like some kind of medieval monk. Don’t be afraid to step outside the text once or twice; you may even want to plot your digressions. Having your text in front of you – double or triple-spaced for ease of reading – will be your security blanket. Where there is death and mourning, there will also be confusion and emotion. By creating a text, you learn what you want to say. And people will ask you for copies.

3. Ask for some input from trusted family members.

“I’m not sure that Dad knew how to express gratitude very well,” I told my two brothers the evening of the wake. “I don’t think that’s right,” said one, and both of them shared with me examples of Dad’s gratitude. You have to be selective in whom you ask to toss in two cents. The wrong people will try to manipulate your message or expect you to use anything they give you. Frame it this way: These people work for you in this endeavor, not for the dead.

4. Have a specific mission for the eulogy.

This is a strategy I use for all my writing: Have a purpose and state it clearly before drafting. The night before my father-in-law’s funeral, his five children gathered around a table to tell stories about Russell Major, and for more than two hours, not one of them recalled anything positive or uplifting. He was a gruff man, no doubt, but he had been kind to me, teaching me how to fish and dig for clams, and was affectionate to his grandchildren. I wrote his eulogy with a mission: so his children would recognize one or two of the good things he had done to improve their lives.

5. Keep positive, even in the shadow of tragedy.

I learned this trick from reporters and obituary writers. A young person, for example, is killed in an accident. Suddenly, the reporter shows up at the door to record the event, maybe even to ask for a photo. Why wouldn’t the grieving parent just slam the door on the reporter? It happens. More often, the loved one is willing to talk, especially if the frame is not the death of the person, but his or her life. “What would you like people to know about your daughter?” is the standard and most helpful question. It doesn’t matter if she was a gang member or a meth addict. At some point in her life, someone loved her – and loved her for a reason. That’s what I’m looking for.

6. Have a beginning, a middle and an ending.

My favorite death notice is delivered by a messenger near the end of Shakespeare’s most violent tragedy, Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” Not happy or timely news for the murderously ambitious Scot, who then faces his own death. The Thane of Cawdor did not have the time or temperament to appreciate that the six-word message about the passing of Lady Macbeth had a beginning (The Queen), a middle (my lord), and an end (is dead).

In my favorite framework, the eulogy begins with a theme meant to capture something special and distinctive about the person’s life. “He did more great things in his 50 years than most people could do in five lifetimes.” “The first thing anyone noticed about Pete was that, at 6-feet 4-inches, he seemed larger than life.” “She had that ability – sometimes attributed to saints – to completely change for the better the nature of your day.” As with many other genres, the middle provides the evidence for themes with rich examples and anecdotes. The ending, as we shall see, delivers a final memorable note.

7. Address the family directly.

This can be the hardest part of the process but is in many ways the most beneficial. As happens with many long-married couples, my parents grew resentful of each other late in life, especially as my father’s health failed and my mother became responsible for his care. “How are your parents doing?” asked a friend. “They’ve been married for 61 years,” I responded, “and they’ve never been unhappier.” It was very important for me to say to my mom at the funeral in front of everyone, “Mom, he loved you, was faithful to you and appreciated everything you did for him, even if he didn’t always express it.”

8. Use narrative strategies to bring the dead person back to life.

My favorite eulogy was the one I delivered for my next-door neighbor Jack Leonard. He died in his late 50s of the long-term effects of a waterskiing accident when he was 21 years old. He broke his neck and became a quadriplegic, yet he led a spectacularly active career as a high-school football and college baseball coach. One of his few physical pleasures was chewing tobacco, so I told the story of his trying to teach me that fine art, and how green I turned, and how he laughed so hard he almost fell out of his motorized wheelchair. “Thanks,” one of his friends told me later, “you brought him back to life.” That’s the point of narrative strategies such as scene setting, isn’t it? The writer creates an experience that transports the reader or listener to another time and place, creating the feeling that it is happening now, at this moment. Think of it as a human form of resurrection.

9. Rehearse it before the “loved one” passes.

My mother, I am happy to say, is still alive at the age of 94, and, in spite of some gradual infirmities, has all her marbles, as she puts it. She may live to 100 or beyond, but I know that one day, her eulogy is likely to be delivered by me and my brothers. Without writing down a word, I am “rehearsing” her story. Mom is a relentless talker, and it is often difficult for her loved ones to get a word in edgewise. I have imagined a lead sentence to her eulogy, an opening I once delivered in her presence at a little party in her honor. “I find myself this morning,” I intoned, making believe I was behind a pulpit, “in a most unusual position. I stand here in the presence of my mother [looking down solemnly upon her remains] speaking for once without fear of interruption.” Her friend, Mary Cregan, almost choked with laughter. “Oh my God,” she said, “are you going to make me laugh in church?” I certainly hope so. Mom’s response to the joke? “Oh, I forgot to tell you. You were adopted.”

10. At least hint at the unvarnished truth.

Mike Wilson, a fine editor at the Tampa Bay Times, reminds his feature writers to take care with characters who appear too good to be true. “Look for the bruise on the apple,” he tells them. When it comes to eulogies, it is important – going against conventional wisdom – to speak ill of the dead. This does not require a litany of vices. It does mean that when you shine a bright light on a person’s virtues, you then at least point to the shadow.

A late revision to my eulogy for my father-in-law included this sentence: “When it came to parenting, Russell was more Meat Cleaver than Ward Cleaver.” I could see nods in the congregation and hear murmurs of assent. What followed was an inventory of his skills: working long days and nights as a mechanic on the railroad, building a beach house with his own hands, teaching his children the pleasures of the outdoor life. Only by acknowledging the negative could I give these positive elements the ring of truth.

11. Knock ’em dead.

My brother Ted delivered the eulogy for our Aunt Pearl. I could not be there, but I heard a recording, and he did a splendid job, crossing some lines that I have not yet dared to cross. It turns out that Pearl was a great fan of Harry Belafonte and had a special love for his 1956 song “Banana Boat,” better known for its opening line “Day-o! Day-ay-ay-o. Daylight come and me wanna go home.” Imagine the surprise and delight when my brother, a talented musician, led the congregation in a musical tribute to Aunt Pearl, a choral rendition of her favorite song.

12. The ending is more important than the beginning.

I was asked by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution to write an “advanced obituary” for Gene Patterson, who helped lead the paper as its editor through the Civil Rights era of 1960-68. This is a common practice among metropolitan newspapers. They keep files of living artists, celebrities and political leaders so that when they die, the newspaper can publish a detailed obituary on the spot. I guarantee that the New York Times will be ready whenever Tony Bennett sings his final note.

The lead sentence of most obituaries requires a formula that frames the verb of the main clause. That verb is, almost without exception, “died.” If I had written one for my dog, it would have gone like this: “Rex Clark, a Jack Russell terrier who became well known in his community for his ferocious and delightful pursuit of possums and tennis balls, died Thursday at the age of 19, surrounded by the human family that loved him.”

The clever obit writer and eulogist saves something special for the end. Inspired by my brother Ted, I am thinking that we need a song as a crescendo to our eulogy for my mother. Mom is still a talented singer who spent many years of her life directing and performing in variety shows for her parish. In another life, she could have been, in the parlance of the trade, a saloon singer, crooning bluesy ballads and upbeat jazz hits of the 1930s and ’40s.

Can we sing “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” at a Catholic funeral Mass? Can we get the congregation – numbering in the hundreds – to sing along? Can we give Mom, in her final public appearance, that one great standing ovation she always craved?

In a building where the sacrament of Penance is offered, it may, in fact, be easier to get forgiveness than permission.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers and How to Write Short.

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Prompt

A write of passage

Prepare a eulogy for a fictional character from one of your stories. Include a condensed biography of the subject, details about family and work, and a favorite story about the subject. How can you engage audience emotion and create a strong narrative from your knowledge of the character? Read your final copy out loud for rhythm and drama. Then consider the ways in which you might use the eulogy to create dimension for your (living) character on the page.

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5 first lines from famous eulogies

Jawaharlal Nehru on Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948
A glory has departed and the sun that warmed and brightened our lives has set, and we shiver in the cold and dark. Yet he would not have us feel this way. After all, that glory that we saw for all these years, that man with divine fire, changed us also—and such as we are, we have been molded by him during these years; and out of that divine fire many of us also took a small spark which strengthened and made us work to some extent on the lines that he fashioned.

Untitled-4Oprah Winfrey on Rosa Parks 1913-2005
I feel it an honor to be here to come and say a final goodbye. I grew up in the South, and Rosa Parks was a hero to me long before I recognized and understood the power and impact that her life embodied. I remember my father telling me about this colored woman who had refused to give up her seat. And in my child’s mind, I thought, “She must be really big.” I thought she must be at least a hundred feet tall. I imagined her being stalwart and strong and carrying a shield to hold back the white folks. And then I grew up and had the esteemed honor of meeting her. And wasn’t that a surprise. Here was this petite, almost delicate lady who was the personification of grace and goodness. And I thanked her then. I said, “Thank you,” for myself and for every colored girl, every colored boy, who didn’t have heroes who were celebrated.”

Father Michael Duffy on Father Mychal Judge 1933-2001
(the New York priest was one of the first to die during 9/11)
After all that has been written about Father Mychal Judge in the newspapers, after all that has been spoken about him on television, the compliments, the accolades, the great tribute that was given to him last night at the Wake Service, I stand in front of you and honestly feel that the homilist at Mother Teresa’s funeral had it easier than I do.

Lee Strasberg on Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962
Marilyn Monroe was a legend. In her own lifetime she created a myth of what a poor girl from a deprived background could attain. For the entire world she became a symbol of the eternal feminine.
But I have no words to describe the myth and the legend. I did not know this Marilyn Monroe. We gathered here today knew only Marilyn – a warm human being, impulsive and shy, sensitive and in fear of rejection, yet ever avid for life and reaching out for fulfillment.

John Cleese on Graham Chapman 1941-1989
He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky, and I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, such capability and kindness, of such intelligence should now be so suddenly spirited away at the age of only 48, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun.
Well, I feel that I should say, “Nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard! I hope he fries.”
And the reason I think I should say this is, he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste.

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Elegy for the King and Queen

By Thomas French

Excerpt originally published October 1, 2006  •  Tampa Bay Times

TP_250070_BOYA_ZOOWhen I first read this passage, I was struck by the inventiveness of Tom French’s approach. Two charismatic animals – a chimp and a tiger – had been killed violently at the local zoo, and French understood that they had significance to the community that went beyond the breaking news stories. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, French was equipped and trusted to try something unusual. This would be a feature obituary with a parallel narrative: Herman and Enshala. But the language became that of the eulogy: “Let us pay respect to fallen royalty.” What follows is a narrative, not on the occasion of death, but on the adventure of life. In five paragraphs, he offers tiny details such as “$25 and a thumbprint” and dramatic conclusions such as “his keepers had no doubt he possessed a soul.” There is pathos, humor and the absurd – all leading to that symbolic number: 00001. Herman was the primal primate, Adam in this garden of captives. —Roy Peter Clark

Let us pay respect to fallen royalty.

His early life unfolded like something coauthored by Dickens and Darwin. As an infant he was taken from his mother – he almost certainly saw her die trying to protect him – then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint.

He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers. He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses. Although he was afforded the sexual privileges conferred by rank, he never chose a mate. He had no interest in females of his own kind. He preferred blonds in tank tops.

He reigned through the death of one zoo and the birth of another. He proved himself a benevolent leader who knew how to keep the peace and observe the social formalities. He was a good listener. He was loyal and forgiving. Looking into his brown eyes, his keepers had no doubt he possessed a soul.

Altogether he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001.

* * *

She was born with her eyes closed in a den less than a hundred yards away from his kingdom. She grew up hearing his hoots and cries. Like nearly everyone else at the zoo, he undoubtedly would have heard her roars and moans.

ENSHALLA    TIGERBy human standards, her family history was a Greek tragedy. Her father and mother were brought from two continents and paired at Lowry Park. Her mother accidentally killed their first cub. Later, her father killed her mother.

She was perhaps the most beautiful creature at the zoo and certainly one of the most fierce. When suitors were presented for her approval, she flirted with them, chuffed at them, occasionally let them near. But she also stalked them as though they were her prey.

Words have not been invented to convey how she moved. Everything she did – even the way she curled on the ground for an afternoon nap – radiated both fluid grace and a sense of terrible power, held in check.

She liked the smell of cinnamon, the taste of horseflesh. Her exhibit was littered with bones and blood and enshrouded with her scent, which she sprayed to declare her supremacy. When darkness approached and it was time to return to her night house, she would sometimes refuse to budge if she did not like whoever was summoning her inside.

One of her longtime keepers – someone who pampered her and always remembered her birthday – called her “the queen of the zoo.”

* * *

The queen’s name was Enshalla. She was a Sumatran tiger, among the last to walk this planet.

The king’s name was Herman. He was the alpha male of the zoo’s chimpanzee group.

Now, suddenly, both are gone, killed this summer in two violent incidents that have shocked the community and left the staff at Lowry Park reeling.

Inside any zoo, death is part of the daily fabric. Rabbits disappear down the digestive tracts of reticulated pythons. Seahorses give birth to dozens of offspring, most of whom perish when they’re still just specks in the water.

The losses of Herman and Enshalla hit much harder. They had names and undeniable personalities. In the vernacular of zookeeping, they were charismatic mammals – easily among the most beloved in the zoo’s five-decade history.

Their deaths have been followed by a chorus of accusations and investigations and another round of the endless debate about the ethics of placing animals on display, even in the name of conservation.

Lost in the clamor are Herman and Enshalla themselves. Their surprising histories. Their habits and quirks. The complexity of their relationships with others of their species, and with the humans who watched over them.

How they lived and how they died.

For Thomas French’s full story, please visit SPTimes.com.

  • Laura Lewandowski

    I wrote the newspaper obit for my father. I worked on it for two days, then emailed it to my brothers who still lived in our rural hometown to take to the newspaper. They tinkered with it–a lot–before they took it to the paper. What they delivered and was published was so awful, so devoid of theme and grammar and even appropriate capitalization, that tears come to my eyes even now, five years later. My father deserved better.

  • K Omundson

    I concur on all points! I’m the eulogy-designee for my church, and I’ve been writing and presenting them for years. I push the limits every time, both with what people might be comfortable hearing and with my own limits of self-disclosure, because I believe that a well-crafted, loving, and truthful eulogy has the potential for changing the lives of the listeners. The question is, ‘How will you respond to the story of this person?’