The first time I was asked to give a eulogy, I was thrilled. It was for my grandfather. Now, obviously, I wasn’t thrilled that my grandfather had died. It’s just that I always wanted to be the guy who spoke about the deceased at a funeral. It seemed like a very important, noble role to fulfill. One of Shakespeare’s best-known monologues is Marc Antony’s eulogy of Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”); in our own time, I have always been moved by Ted Kennedy’s beautiful eulogy for his brother Bobby, in which he said that people should remember him “as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
I happen to enjoy funerals, burials, and cemeteries very much – odd for someone who when younger could spend sleepless nights in pulse-palpitating terror at the thought of the finality of death. I’m not sure when or why I began feeling this way. I have always been a fan of the movie Harold & Maude, about an elderly woman and a young man who share an obsession with these rites of final passage. I guess I just find that people are very real at funerals; their emotions, obviously, are at the surface, and they speak softly and kindly, with respect for the dead and a renewed appreciation for life.
The eulogy is where all these elements come together. Of course, that is the literal meaning of the word “eulogy” – from the Greek, the prefix “eu-” means good and “logy” means speech or story. A eulogy is a speech that praises someone who has died. I have given five in my life – for my grandfather, my mother, my uncle, and two of my friends – and they have run the gamut from touching to hysterical, each perfectly suited to the person for whom it was written.
For example, my mother, who passed away after a long disease, was the kind of person to whom funny things happened. All I had to do was tell a few of our family’s favorite stories about her and the crowd was in stitches. Jimmy Fallon would kill to have this kind of material, and because her death came as something of a relief, it was appropriate to not be too somber. My uncle, however, died in an accident and his sudden passing – and with it, the loss of his warmth and wisdom – was a painful shock to our family. My eulogy was framed around the structure and wording of a specific section of the Passover seder, which he led for decades, and based on the compliments I received afterwards, my words proved to be healing.
My success (if such a term is appropriate given the context) in giving eulogies has led my father to request to see his before he dies. Hopefully, I do not need to start working on that one for a while. On the other hand, perhaps I should write one for myself, just in case my life at its end is not deemed sufficiently praiseworthy.