Funeral for a Friend

Today I will eulogize a beloved friend who recently passed away. It’s a honor but also a challenge. How does one summarize or even remotely adequately reflect on an entire life? How does a eulogist show sensitivity to the diverse emotional planes upon which mourners in the audience exist: Some in shock, some at peace, some grieving actively, others reflective and grateful that they had such a friend or parent or sibling or spouse?

As preparation, I spent a fair amount of time learning how other eulogists have engaged the task. Two markedly different, markedly well done examples made the strongest impression on me.

The first was by Pulitzer Prize winner William Allen White, a major literary figure in his day but not well known today. The horrid occasion was the death of his young daughter Mary. You can read all of this classic American essay here; this is the closing paragraph:

A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.

At the other end of every spectra is John Cleese giving the perfect irreverent sendoff to his comedy writing partner Graham Chapman. My favorite line: “Anything for him but mindless good taste”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Funeral for a Friend”

  1. pardon me sir, but are you sure you didn't mean "irreverent" in your closing sentence?

  2. Keith, if you’re writing an elegy to be delivered orally at a funeral, you will want to use shorter paragraphs, with shorter sentences, than you would in a written version such as the outstanding one by White.

    Here is some good advice from Father Tom Carlucci, who officiated at the funeral of my wife Pat fourteen years ago. I asked Father Tom “what should I say in a eulogy?” He advised me to tell about the Pat I knew. To say why she was special, and why she was important to the people whose lives she touched. And most important, why she was special to me.

    At the funeral there will be some who knew your friend well, and others who only knew him a little. To those who knew him well, it will be of interest to hear you describing how you knew him, how he affected you. They will have their own memories of him, which will be enhanced by yours, but not changed by yours. And to those who knew him not so well, it will be valuable to hear something more in-depth than they themselves could have said.

    So focus on your personal relationship with your friend, and the things you shared with him, and the things you knew about him that perhaps nobody else knew. And perhaps on the loss you feel, that will be different than anyone else’s.

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