As I became a Super-ager (Age 65 and older) many of my conversations with colleagues and friends have had to do with remembrance… what we wish to be noted for or for what we would like to be credited. Reaching this venerable state, I have outlived most of my friends and colleagues as well as many of my neighbors and members of my family. Often I have been asked to say a few words regarding my association with, and memories of, a former friend or buddy. On each new occasion I have tried to polish my delivery. I will now try to pass on what I have learned.
First, if you have been honored by being asked to say good- bye to a friend or colleague make sure your selection has the endorsement of the key member of the honoree’s family. Clear the points to be touched on issues or names to be avoided. Detailed research is not necessary.
Second, what you say about the person being honored should be believable. This reminds me of something George Jessel once said. Jessel, an early TV comedian and personality, related that he was given a testimonial dinner for all of the work he had done for charity organizations in New York. Following many accolades, Jessel was called on to say a few words. Rising to speak after hearing the many bouquets of praise, he said that he regretted that his mother and father were not there to hear all of these tributes. He said that his mother would have believed everything that was said and his father would have wondered who they were talking about.
Most importantly, I would recommend keeping your remarks brief. I was once asked by a neighbor of some thirty years to deliver the eulogy at her late husband’s memorial service. Her instructions were to relate all the great events our families shared, but remember keep it brief. It took some imagination and short-cuts on my part to satisfy the widow’s request.
The dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863 is an extraordinary example of the quality of a eulogy not being enhanced by greater length. The main speaker at the Gettysburg dedication was Edward Everett, a noted eulogist of that time who spoke for two hours. The much briefer dedication by President Abraham Lincoln, known as the Gettysburg Address (272 words), has been immortalized as a national treasure. The contents of Mr. Everett’s eulogy, on the other hand, is literally unknown except to historians.
Some individuals may decide that they would wish to have a share in what is said about their lives and accomplishments and write their own story. This choice carries along with it the possibility that if one’s bragging is obvious when delivered, the audience may, like Jessel’s father, wonder who the speaker is talking about.