When my mother died last month, I was determined to give a personal tribute at her funeral Mass. But how would I condense 80 years of wonderful life into five minutes of hopefully-not-too-awful funeral speech? Unhampered by a sparkling CV – my mum was a cleaner – I decided to focus on her personality, particularly her kindness.
Speaking at a funeral is daunting. But it gives the chance to say things about a loved one that they were too modest to say for themselves.
And with all the timeless elements of storytelling at your disposal – human voice, candlelight and high emotion – even novice speakers can turn in a spellbinding performance.
The following steps will support you through the chewed biros, drafts and tears.
Decide on parameters. Chronologies are rarely riveting. And condensing 80 years into five minutes is hard work. It’s better to take one aspect of the departed’s personality (e.g. humour, generosity, work ethic) and use that one trait as a way of illuminating their whole life.
Or draw on a specific period of their life: young family, starting a business, moving to a new town/job, and show how that period influenced the rest.
For my mum, using her legendary kindness as a platform, I honed in on a single property in her street, where she had helped three different neighbours in crises.
If the subject of your tribute had a conventionally solid CV, take a career highlight, crowning achievement or prestigious award, and talk about how it came into being.
Ask others for their stories. Learning what the person was like in different situations gives a more rounded picture. Listen out, with a sensitive ear, for clichés. At the funeral of a distant relative of mine, the vicar intoned: “Beatrice liked to knit and sew and looked forward to visits by her grandchildren.” In reality, Beat’s sole pastime was betting on the horses, and she had long ago fallen out with her immediate family. Clearly the vicar had relied on care home staff to research his homily, and they had trotted out the usual things people say about older women.
Write the body of your speech first. Three stories that sound individual, and bring the subject to life (so to speak) is a good number to illustrate the central theme.
Edit unnecessary detail. Try deleting the first two paragraphs of the draft, so the speech gets going in the middle of the action. And cross out everything that is not essential to your angle. There is no time for preambles, shaggy dog stories, or fond anecdotes which do not support the main narrative.
Write as if explaining to an intelligent eight-year-old. You have only one shot for each sentence to make sense. If you lose the audience on the first sentence, you’ve lost them for the second, and most likely for good. There’s no chance re-read or re-take with live speech.
Introduction and ending will flow naturally from the core of the text. Simply introducing yourself and your relationship to the deceased is a perfect way to get going. Provide a route map near the beginning: “I’m going to tell you three stories about…” to give the audience milestones, and an idea of how long the speech will last.
Use emotional light and shade, but beware melodrama. Influenced by Hollywood, many eulogies conclude on variations of “and now there is no more of Joanie”. But what sounds poignant in rehearsal, announced to the kitchen kettle, becomes redundant in the final setting. On the day, your funeral speech will be delivered within metres of the coffin. This visual cue captures the finality of the situation, and no more need be said.
Aim for a lively but respectful tone. Obituaries of great and good are compiled while they are still alive, and feel dynamic. Writing a tribute shortly after someone has died means events are rawer, but try not to let the end of life overshadow the rest.
Aim to use family friendly anecdotes. Broadcaster Jenni Murray says couples appreciate conservative humour, as nobody wants their spouse to see them enjoying a near-the-knuckle story.
Rehearse out loud. Weed out any words, phrases or long sentences or clauses that trip your tongue. Rehearse in front of a mirror. Rope in friends to time trial runs, and highlight any glitches, repetitions or redundancy. Until a TV producer friend heard my draft, I was pronouncing “visceral” as “viskeral”.
As your notes are for your eyes only, tricky words can be spelt phonetically (“viSSeral”), funny moments can be in italics, so you know to vary the tone, and pauses can be blank space.
Ask to be early in the order of service. It’s easier to engage people’s attention towards the beginning of the funeral. Arrive at the venue early, to see how you will navigate to the lectern. Be wary of concealed steps, dripping candles and flower stands.
Hearing loud and clear. If there’s a microphone, still speak to the audience not the equipment. Don’t lean too close to the mic, to prevent p-p-p-popping. Leave off bangles and jackets with heavy cuff buttons, as the jingling will sound like cymbals and distract you. In a large church or crematorium with no PA system, aim your voice to a spot on the back wall, doing your best Maggie Smith projection.
Memorise your speech, but have a copy as a safety net. (No need to do an Ed Miliband.) A friend to hold the copy, before and after you speak, really helps with nerves.
Connect with the front rows for first few lines, then radiate out. When you have finished, hold your audience for a few seconds. Then bow to the altar or protocol as required. An excellent primer for would-be speakers is Sam Leith’s You Talking to Me.
Hymns offer good cover for a quick cry. Knowing there will soon be a point when all eyes are off you makes it easier to hold it together for the tribute.
Memories of a good speech live on. Your tribute will be a springboard for more memories of your loved one. A good funeral speech is far from the last word.