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How to Write a Eulogy

More personal than an obituary, it should capture who the person was

spinner image man sitting at a desk with a pen and notepad writing a eulogy while looking at a picture of his late wife
Ansgar Photography/Corbis

| Putting into words the essence of another person is a difficult task in the best of times. But it’s especially daunting when you're grieving the loss of a loved one and have only a few days to gather your thoughts to compose a eulogy. But experts have some advice on how to make the process easier.

The first step is to understand what a eulogy is — and isn't.

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"It isn't an obituary," says Carol DeChant, editor of the book Great American Catholic Eulogies. Obituaries are usually mini-biographies, focused on what a person did, she explains, "but the eulogy is much deeper, more about who the person was, than just the facts. It's meant for the select group of people who knew and cared for that person, or who care for the survivors."

"It's the personal touch," says Garry Schaeffer, author of A Labor of Love: How to Write a Eulogy. "It's someone getting up and saying, 'This is what this person meant to me.' It's what makes the service special and heartwarming and memorable."

There's no one right way to eulogize someone, the experts say. Some memorial services are more formal and have only one or two eulogies that might need to be approved by the clergy member beforehand; others are more loosely planned and might include four or five short eulogies — or organizers might welcome any number of extemporaneous eulogies.

Whatever the format, it's helpful to organize your thoughts before you share them with other mourners. Some tips:

1. Start by brainstorming

Schaeffer suggests using a form of outlining called clustering or mind-mapping. You start by drawing a circle with the person's name in it. Then, he says, ask yourself, What are the qualities of the person? What is most outstanding about him or her? (For example, “sense of humor.”) Write those down in circles around the person's name. To add details to a topic, draw a line out from it and add more key words or phrases — just enough to jog your memory. Move around the circle with new ideas, clustering related thoughts together.

2. Consider reaching out to other mourners

If you're the only family member scheduled to deliver a eulogy, for example, you might ask other close relatives for their stories and suggestions.

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3. Include lively anecdotes

Schaeffer says, "The biggest mistake people make is talking about the person's qualities in a way that's just too bland." In other words, he explains, don't just say, "She was generous." Give the listeners an example of her generosity that impressed you.

4. Try not to focus too much on yourself

"You have to put yourself into it to a degree," says DeChant, because a eulogy is from your point of view — but it's not about you. "Have someone who loves you read it," she suggests. "Ask them, 'Is there too much of me in it?' If the person cares about you, they'll tell you."

5. Don't be afraid to be funny

DeChant says, "When people get up and share something that they loved about that person, there can be very healthy, healing laughter."

6. Edit yourself

You may want to put the eulogy aside for a bit, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Keep revising until you're happy with it and it's at a good length. Schaeffer suggests aiming to speak for between five and eight minutes, but "I would err on the side of shorter."

7. Don't give up

You're grieving, maybe struggling to think clearly, and probably have only a short time to prepare. But remember, says DeChant, that putting in the effort, then offering other mourners your heartfelt thoughts and memories, "is the greatest gift you can give."

8. Know that it’s normal to be nervous and emotional

“When you get up to speak you’re going to be nervous,” says Schaeffer. “Remember that everyone supports you and wants you to do well. And you’re going to be upset. It’s okay to cry.”

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