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What should I say at a funeral?

When I meet with a family to discuss a loved ones’ service, one question I am often asked is, “What should I say?”

It is a tricky question, but the answer is simple.  You can say whatever you like, so long as it is appropriate.

Like all simple answers, however, there is a complexity lying behind. 

The truth is that a tribute, or a eulogy, should be first and foremost appropriate to the loved one whose life you are celebrating. 

It should also be appropriate to the situation of their passing, and of course, appropriate to the ones that have been left behind.

All other considerations are well below secondary.

Whenever I take a service, this is the answer I always give, with the addendum that if you are undecided over whether to include something in a service, then consider what your loved one would have wanted?

If they would have liked it, it stays in, if not, it’s out.

At my fathers’ service, held in the New Year, and I insisted on starting with the grandchildren singing a light-hearted, chirpy, nonsense rhyme that their grandfather had taught them, and which I remembered him teaching me:

Aunty Mary had a canary,

Up the leg of her draws.

When she farted,

It departed,

To a round of applause

There was some initial disquiet about this but given that I believed in what I was doing, and knowing that my father would have loved it so it went in.  It set just the right tone for his memorial service with lots of laughs to celebrate the life of a serial joker and prankster.

Of course, this is not how I would start most ceremonies, or indeed, the vast majority of services that I run, and a good celebrant will tailor make a service to fit the deceased - there is a little less flexibility with religious services which have their own rites and traditions with all the meanings and relevance that they provide, but the same guidelines apply for the eulogies, or spoken tributes.

The same principle goes for how long a service should be.

Personally, I work with the family to guide me on what is appropriate and have done services that last anything from twenty-five minutes to two and a half hours (which is little extreme, but the person in that case had led a fascinating life, and was known to go on a bit, so it was, and here’s that word again, appropriate).

One Widow, insisted on writing and reading her own eulogy to her newly departed husband, and spoke for over an hour, still the only eulogy I have had to have an intermission in, but again, it was interesting, funny, and wholly appropriate to her loved one, so it wasn’t just fine, it was great.

There is no hard and fast rule on how long a service should be, although I do always try to estimate the time so that caterers know when to put the savouries in the oven.

So when you get to that stage of life where you are faced with having to write a tribute/eulogy for a loved one, then do so with the freedom of knowing that the only restriction to go by is:

  • whether or not they would have liked it
  • and knew that you are prepared to do it
  • and you aren’t repeating material in someone else’s tribute
  • and your language is appropriate and approach is pitched to suit the family and can be easily understood by the youngest and oldest people there

Of course, if you ever need any help, then your celebrant of choice will be happy to assist in any way that they can.

PS:  I use the terms Tribute and Eulogy interchangeably, yet by definition a eulogy is: “A set oration in honour of a deceased person” and can be an outline of their life or a series of stories celebrating the wonderful nonsense we get up to.


Submitted by Steve Compton, celebrant, Timaru, NZ