Saturday, July 21, 2007



It's quite common exercise in motivational and self development manuals, to imagine what people are going to say about you at your funeral, and then to write your own eulogy. The aim being to put you in contact with your core values, the things you hold to and most treasure, hoping these will be noted and found endearing by others too. It is actually an extremely effective process to go through on a personal level. Having now seen literally hundreds of funeral services and eulogies I have to admit that an edge of scepticism now circles around the whole purpose of eulogies.

The first things to say is that you are long gone so you wont hear it, at least not in this world. In a way a eulogy could be seen as the summary and conclusions that can be drawn from your life. It's like the final chapter in a novel that hopefully pulls all the strands together,what others understand of us and what it all meant to them, what our life story seemed to be about. Or it could be simply the fulfillment of a prophecy that was implied, in potential at least, by the moment of your birth. Though these are to an extent self-referential viewpoints, and as I've already stated you're no longer around to receive these accolades for a life well spent ( or mis-spent ). A eulogy is primarily out of our control, it will be given if we are lucky by a good friend or a perceptive relative. I have to say though. that in my experience eulogies will be given, nine times out of ten, by clergy/officiants who did not know you. They put it very nicely and tactfully say ' I never had the pleasure of meeting Jack myself, but I've had the good fortune to talk with Brenda and Charles last week, to hear and collect their memories and fond recollections' which is longhand for saying 'I never met the guy, but it seems he was OK' They will then read the eulogy from a prepared script, which sometimes has been composed by the family, but more often not. This will say where, when and to whom the deceased was born, where they were educated, what jobs they did, who they married, how many children, where they lived and where and how they died. The barest of bare bones of a lifetime. So if you are thinking you'll receive a fulsome rejoicing of your merits,be prepared, it may not happen.

Of course there are many reasons why this is what happens. The main reason is that your family and friends will be too distraught, still coming to terms with their loss, and will understandable feel unable to do it themselves. I have to say that the most moving eulogies I've heard, ones that have given me a sense of what has been lost to the world and brought a tear to my eye, are the ones given by family members and close friends. Brave and obviously emotionally hardy individuals, who manage to find the strength and courage to evoke a tangible sense of the qualities of the deceased. I have felt profoundly humbled and in awe at such moments. My heart has genuinely been captured and gone out to the family. This is particularly so when the deceased has died young, or their was immense suffering.

It is a bit of a cliche that we do not speak ill of the dead, and I feel the need to question that as an assertion. Mostly eulogies do focus on what a persons best qualities were, and that can be a rare and admirable thing indeed to do. These are generally universal in tone; appreciations of how loving the deceased was and how they were loved in return, their quirks and eccentricities of behaviour being fondly recounted. Any faults of character, if they are refereed to at all, are done so euphemistically or in a diplomatic and roundabout manner. Typically ' they knew their own mind and what they wanted, and couldn't be dissuaded otherwise' being short hand for they could be bloody minded and intransigent at times, or 'they knew when they were right, and had the strength of character and courage to say so,' meaning they were often infuriatingly pompous and an arrogant sod. I find it hard to think of anyone whose behaviour hasn't mildly irritated me on an occasion, some with greater frequency than others. So these references, however elliptical in tone, do give a fuller more rounded picture of our sense of that person. Vital tints of vivid, if not violent, colours to enliven the pastel palette of muted pleasantries. I think we must speak well of the dead, and by that I mean truthfully – a balanced review which with circumspect reflection should include some of the warts as well.

One officiant has said frequently, that they get very uneasy when all the information the family provides is praiseworthy and glisteningly pristine, yet they know there's a huge elephant under the carpet that no ones talking about – ie. Why or how the person died, such as a dissolute lifestyle, drug overdose, mental problems or suicide. These do need to be at least referred to in some way, or the eulogy will turn into a charade or travesty that is unbearable economical with the truth. Everyone who goes to a funeral will have known them to some degree, they know something of what they were really like. There is no point in anyone, least of all someone who didn't know them, trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Quite often a eulogy does comes across as a sanitised, and I have to say sentimentalised, version of the deceased's personality. Perhaps this is understandable, and all part of the process of coming to terms with what has been lost - to romanticise the person in our grief. Though I'd be surprised if being idolised was what any of us wanted when we wrote our imaginary eulogies.

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