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September 2, 2015

Writing a Eulogy

by:  S. Craig Greer, M.Div

The word Eulogy comes from the Greek word “eulogia” meaning to praise.  Often this is confused with the sermon, which is a time to teach.  Sometimes we combine the two in funeral services.  While I think these can be done at the same time, there is something beneficial to seeing these as two separate talks.

Religious sermons are about teaching faith at a time of crisis.  At funerals we confront our beliefs about life and death, good and evil, the meaning of life, and the myriad of questions we have has human beings.  Eulogies are a reflection of a life and offer time to look at the accomplishments and relationships of the person who died.

While many attempt to combine eulogies and sermons, too often I find the minister doesn’t know the person who died.  I don’t understand why these ministers don’t seek out stories of the deceased – instead they rely on reading obituaries and saying a few words about this life and preaching about the next.  Unfortunately that doesn’t provide an opportunity to truly reflect on the life of the person.

Maybe I developed sensitivity to eulogies as a teenager when my brother died.  Our faith and beliefs were discussed, but nothing was said about the life of my brother.  Like many families, we made a saint out of Charlie.  He was a great big brother, but by no means a saint. He was a flesh and blood fireball. 

Today when I am asked to preach a funeral or do a eulogy, my goal is to get to know the person.  If I have been involved in their care, I want to learn about their stories, hear about their successes and failures, their hopes and dreams. If I haven’t been involved in their care, I like to speak with family and friends so I can get a sense of the person.  My goal is to present as complete a picture as I am able.

Years ago I saw a patient who suffered from paranoia and loved conspiracy theories.  He also had a deep hatred for the Catholic Church – full disclosure, I was priest until I left active ministry to marry.  The patient never knew I was Catholic.  Nor did it matter because I was a I was there as a chaplain not representing my own religious beliefs.  We struck up a friendship and we enjoyed our talks.

He was a challenge from the time of his mental break 40 plus years ago and had alienated his friends and family. Nonetheless his daughter was caring for him, in spite of the difficulty and the personal toll it was taking. They both struggled with what was happening.  They had been estranged, but, through his illness, they had been brought together again out of necessity. 

When I did the eulogy, I talked about the struggle he must have had living in such a complicated world filled with prejudice, resentment and fear due to his illness.  I talked about the struggle of the family who cared for him in spite of the challenges.  I believe it’s important to acknowledge the whole person and see the good things and the difficult things that make up our relationships.  It’s also important to address the mystery of the person we can never fully understand.

Eulogizing a friend of mine’s child, I did not call her a saint as the minister speaking before me did.  She was a young girl who struggled through illness and had all the tantrums of a pre-teen. She also got tired and cranky and worn out by illness.  I tried to paint a picture of the entire child and her struggles. I wanted to address those real-life moments when her parents were exhausted trying to deal with the hell of losing a child and she was dealing with an illness none of us could fully comprehend.

From a personal perspective, I understand there is always sibling rivalry, but there is no way to compete with a deceased sibling now declared a saint.  We must choose our words carefully.  It’s important to see the entire journey as it was and not romanticize the experience.  Certainly we seek meaning, purpose and clarity, but that doesn’t mean turning away from the realities that in all relationships there is always some unpleasantness and misunderstanding.

I am convinced that at my eulogy, my wife will laugh that 100% of my projects are 75% complete.  (Yes, I have a bit of ADD) She will probably complain that I liked getting silly songs stuck in her head while getting ready for work (think Wizard of OZ,  If I Only Had a Brain).  My kids will talk about me being over protective and the lame jokes I told over and over again.  I am sure my ongoing battle with depression and its effects on the family and my inability to relax are things they will struggle with.  I am sure they will have issues that I focused too much on ministry to others and was unable to balance work and home life. They will be left with the positive and negative influences that make up the light and shadows of me as a person.

They, like all of us, will mourn over missed opportunities and the things left undone or unsaid.  But this is life and death.  It’s all precious and the sacred is in the mundane as well as the extraordinary. 

I have yet to find a ribbon wrapped perfectly around a life that provides a great summation.  We are all busy with living.  We are imperfect and human and that is the way God made us.  We never arrive – we continue to travel in faith and hope.  Our relationships challenge us and help make us who we are and who we will become.

In my mind, eulogies should reflect the whole person –   that is where the laughter is and that is where the struggles and triumphs are found.  Yes we need the sermons and the lessons of faith which are so important and bring us comfort, peace and hope.  We also must remember the whole person – the one we loved and well as the one who irritated the stew out of us at times! 

I often share a story at funerals about the French artist Renoir.  Later in life he was afflicted by arthritis and had to be raised and lowered on a scaffold to reach the canvas.  The pain would be intense and at times he would cry out in agony. 

One day a student helping the artist asked, “Master, why do you go on painting in such pain?”  Renoir replied.  “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”  

The pain of our loss, the pain of illness,the pain of what was left unsaid or undone passes.  Hopefully, with time,  we can step back and see the beauty that remains as we remember our loved ones.

Ah yes, the pain passes, but the beauty remains!