Once so tight lipped and reserved about death, a change has come over the British.
It started with Diana. Suddenly people actually wanted to talk about their feelings in the wake of her death!
These days hardly a month goes by without some public display of grief on social media.
As a nation we seem to be so much more in tune with our feelings about death. Historically, we’ve never seemed especially comfortable contemplating our own mortality. But perhaps public grieving on social media is starting to help us feel a bit better about our own one-way journeys.
What most interests me about this from a professional point of view is how we can use our new-found freedom-to-emote to help us write better eulogies…
Use social media to do your research
Like everything else, writing a eulogy used to be a much more research-intensive sort of task. It would take a little bit of digging around the family tree, and conversations (by phone or in person) with all sorts of distant relatives to build up a life in recollections. These days, we can just canvass opinion online.
Very few people have no online presence whatsoever. Fewer still live outside the social media grid altogether – and I bet they’ll still have friends, neighbours or relatives online.
You can use this network as a wider, richer source of stories about the start of your story. You can even ask people to contribute their favourite memories online. It’ll help you feel the depth of affection for them. And it might even spark off other contributions from people you don’t even know.
Reach out to people
At its best, Facebook is a lively forum for debate: a place to chip in and have your say. One comment provokes another. Topics get discussed from various angles as more and more people pitch in with their opinions. Anyone with anything to say gets drawn in.
If you’re going to give the eulogy, it’s your job to draw people in.
- This really isn’t the time for strict formality. Prepare an honest speech that talks about what you’re feeling, and what you know others are feeling to make this eulogy matter. Talk as someone who’s been affected by this death.
- If you can deliver anecdotes relating to people in the congregation, do it. It’s important to put the life of the deceased in an emotional context; to emphasise the interactions he or she had with family and friends.
- If you’re feeling strong enough, try and look your friends and family as you talk. Make it feel inclusive, like a shared experience.
Make it a communal experience
There’s a great scene in Frasier where, having been charged with the responsibility of giving a eulogy for an aunt (for whom no one had a kind word) Dr Crane resorts to singing a song. As more and more of the congregation join in, it turns a very awkward situation into something joyous: a celebration of life and spontaneity.
That sense of community is so important at a funeral. It’s one of the things that brings us all strength; it can give new resolve to those who have been left behind.
You don’t have to sing a song – unless you really want too. Instead, you can:
- Draw people together by talking about shared experiences.
- Talk about those things you know lots of you have thought or felt about your lost friend.
- Play a piece of music that will be meaningful to the congregation.
Celebrate their life
One of the happiest and saddest things about any death is the outpouring of affection that follows. While it’s heartening to hear so many wonderful things about their impact on others, it’s sad that it takes their death for people to open up about these things.
So it’s your job to try and celebrate the meaning they brought to other peoples’ lives.
How you do it is up to you.
Maybe you can use your own personal experience. In the wake of celebrities’ deaths, people go online to talk about what those people’s books, films or music meant to them – often in very personal terms. You can too.
There is no better legacy than inspiring someone, or making them a better person. These are the things really worth celebrating. You can celebrate them.
Facebooks gives a good approximation of everyday conversation. Comments will range from the informed to the frivolous, by way of endless digression, repetition and misunderstanding.
But it’s the funnies that stick out. It’s the jokes that get re-posted. Ultimately, it’s the stuff that makes us smile that makes us feel better.
This isn’t about using humour to paper over the pain. This is cathartic – humour that heals.
You can see it at a wake. The moment someone cracks a joke, everyone relaxes. It’s as if a pressure valve has been released.
If you have stories that will make people laugh, use them. In fact, use anything that makes people think and feel fondly for the person you’re here to celebrate.
Make it a good send-off
I know it’s a difficult job to write or give a eulogy. But I’m sure you already appreciate, it’s also a very special opportunity – a unique opportunity – to celebrate a life. To say thank you to someone who has meant so much to you.