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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is the author of Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately. Her areas of speaking expertise include Grief at the Workplace: Beyond the Employee Handbook; Empathy: What It Is, How to Get It, What to Do with It; and related topics. She offe...

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05/04/2011 04:52pm
How to Select a Eulogist

Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” After a death, there are formal, established routines you can follow, but even so it can be terribly difficult to think straight. Perhaps that “formal feeling” just isn’t there for you. Unanticipated and agonizing decisions demand your attention. One of them may be having to ask a eulogist to speak at the funeral.

Eulogies are optional, but a good eulogist can give you and the other mourners a great deal of comfort. If you decide to have someone give a talk at the funeral or memorial service, make it as easy as possible on yourself. Here are a few simple guidelines:

The basics:

• Get help. This is not a situation for emailing or texting. Sit down with someone whom you trust or get on the phone and ask for help.
• Make a list of no more than five candidates.
• Evaluate the individuals. Will they likely know enough about your loved one to be able to share meaningfully? Do you believe they are capable of comforting you and the other mourners? You don’t need professional speakers. In fact, it’s better to choose sincerity over slickness.
• Choose a maximum of three people.

If you run into trouble, get more help!

• If you are too upset to go through the basics suggested above, delegate the responsibility to a trusted friend or relative, your funeral director, or to the priest, minister, or rabbi who will officiate at the funeral.
• If “obligations” arise (for example, someone whom you wouldn’t choose may assume they’re going to speak), don’t add to your emotional load. Funeral professionals deal with problems like this every day, so ask for help, even direct intervention if necessary. I assure you they’ll know what to do.

How to ask:
• If it’s just too hard or you’re overwhelmed with other duties, ask someone else to invite the eulogist you’ve chosen.
• Asking someone to give a eulogy is more than issuing an invitation and waiting for a response. It’s essential for everyone’s comfort and peace of mind that anyone invited to give a eulogy receive some idea about what is expected of them. Each eulogist needs to be told how long to speak (five to ten minutes maximum is about right). Also, if more than one eulogist will speak, ask them to talk with each other in advance to make sure their eulogies complement each other while avoiding repetition.

It’s sad and hard to have to make these decisions. If possible, try to remember you’re doing this not only for yourself, but also for people who are coming together to celebrate the life and mourn the death of one of their own.

To Comfort You Later

It’s amazing how grief and shock can obliterate memory. So consider asking a couple of friends to tape the eulogy discreetly. Your funeral director can help. Later, when you’re able to think more clearly, listen to it again. If the recording does not comfort you, quietly delete it. If it does, listen again, take comfort, and share it freely with the others who loved the one who’s gone.


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