Anniston Star, The (AL)
'Pride of place': Eulogies celebrate life
May 5, 2007
Author: Brett Buckner - Star Staff Writer
Death is not a requirement for a eulogy. But it generally works out that way.
A eulogy, as any good English teacher will point out in echoing a dictionary, is a "speech or writing in praise of a person, event or thing."
Eulogies - though not necessarily by definition - are reserved for the dead.
And yet as innately woven as funerals and eulogies seem to be, for those placed in charge of writing these lasting words, the goal is to focus on the celebration of life rather than on the sorrow of death.
The eulogy is an opportunity to rejoice - to laugh as well as to cry - but at most, it's the chance to remember.
"Laughter is always the best medicine," says Jack Causey, pastor of Glen Addie Community Church. "There has to be humor at funerals because that's the feeling people want to be left with ... joy."
When making funeral service arrangements, Causey likes to meet with family members to get a sense of the tone and direction they'd like the funeral to take. It's during these simple meetings that Causey hears the stories that will often open the service.
And sometimes, they are his own experiences with the dearly departed that bring the knowing smiles.
Causey remembers being called to meet with an elderly lady who wanted to talk about her own funeral - a fairly common occurrence, he explains. Unfortunately, the woman was bit hard of hearing and when she asked the kindly pastor where he'd been, she misunderstood his answer.
"Jail?" she said, sounding very concerned. "Why were you in jail?"
Causey had, of course, not been in jail, but still it was a story that those in attendance could relate to, which eased their shared sorrow.
"We kidded about it because it caught us all so off guard," he says, "so I mentioned it at the funeral ... about the fact that I had to get out of jail to be there. It was a little thing but everybody there just roared."
This is the goal of the eulogy, to bring a moment of respectful humor into what can be an incredibly difficult time. It's a way of telling everyone - it's OK to move on.
"The eulogy has pride of place," writes Andrew Motion, poet laureate in his guide, Well Chosen Words: How to Write a Eulogy. "It is the moment at which the deceased is brought close and also the time when he or she steps away. It is at once a greeting and a letting go. The secret of the eulogy's power; it might move us to tears, but it will start to heal us too.
"It will help us get things in perspective and to understand that we cope with loss not by forgetting ... but by finding out how we can best live with our memories."
Funny anecdotes offer the best path to this realization.
When John F. Kennedy Jr. died, the nation was both in shock and in mourning at having had such a life cut tragically short. But when Edward Kennedy delivered the eulogy for his nephew, he relied on humor.
"Once," Kennedy began, "when they asked John what he would do if he went into politics and was elected president, he said, 'I guess the first thing I'd do is call up Uncle Teddy and gloat.'
"I just loved that. It was so like his father."
But sometimes, the sadness is just too great. Preachers, though they may know the deceased, are practiced in the art of the eulogy. Family members and loved ones, when called to speak, may need help is seeing past their personal loss. They need a professional.
Jan Shepardson sat for what seemed like hours, staring into the blank computer screen desperately searching for the words to describe the woman she considered to be her best friend - her mother Grace, who died in 1996.
"It was absolutely impossible," she says from her home in Chandler, Ariz. "I was at a complete and total loss."
Eventually, Shepardson found the words and decided to help others.
In December 2001, she launched LovingEulogies.com, a Web site "ministry devoted to providing the right words upon death" through a variety of services including an on-line writing guide, fill-in-the-blank eulogies and even a 24-hour, custom-writing hotline.
And while she's making a career out of writing for others, Shepardson says she's never given much consideration to writing her own eulogy.
"I could sum mine up pretty quickly," she says, laughing ahead of the punch line. "I guess mine would be ... 'She always spoke the truth.' " This is the same advice Shepardson offers to those preparing to write a eulogy - even if they happen to be a jerk, which is why Loving Eulogies offers a template for the curmudgeon.
"Because not all people are nice," she says, "but all people deserve to have something nice said about them. Even creeps wear nice shoes."
For example, when Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo died in 1976, his friend and fellow writer Ring Lardner delivered the eulogy.
"At rare intervals," he declared, "there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all ... who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact.
"Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not."
Though such candid honesty might seem disrespectful, Shepardson believes that telling the truth - even if it's sugarcoated - is the only way to go.
"What's the point in lying?" she says. "When you're up there, you know the person you're talking about and so does everybody else. If you make them out to be something they're not, you're only doing a disservice to them and yourself."
Causey, a lighthearted pastor, says he's not so sure he agrees.
"When my time comes, I'd want them to celebrate and rejoice," he says. "But I don't think I'd want them to tell the truth."
The eulogy serves a purpose beyond commemorating the life of the deceased, Motion explains. It also connects the living.
"Everyone present knows that they must die one day and every grieving person - however selfless they may be - is mindful of their own eventual destiny.
"As eulogists make their act of particular commemoration, they assert and dignify our common humanity."
The most eulogies are the ones delivered at a time when they can still have meaning to the living.
"Write a living eulogy and give it so someone special, that's when it makes a difference," Shepardson says. "Why do we wait until someone's dead to say something nice about them? We need to share our love with the living because it's pretty much wasted on the dead."
Copyright, 2007, The Anniston Star, Consolidated Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved.
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