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How To Sum Up A Life

Writing the funeral eulogy

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I have been to twenty-three funerals, not because I am a serial mourner but because I have lost twenty-three people for whom I cared enough to say a formal goodbye. For three of these occasions, I wrote and delivered the eulogy. A privilege each time. But writing a funeral tribute is a difficult process; while you are attending to your own grief, you must also endeavour to honour the dead and be mindful of your audience — the friends and families of the deceased. This trickiness is probably why I was given these gigs. You’re a writer, Sophie. I wasn’t flattered by this delegation; clearly no one else wanted to do it. Nevertheless, it was an honour and the process – from collaboration with my fellow-bereaved to performance to a fragile audience – unexpectedly helped me navigate my grief.

How do you balance the joy of life with the sadness of death? How do you distil a lifetime into a speech of five minutes? Think of writing a eulogy as writing a condensed memoir. While you cannot tell the whole chronological story in any meaningful way, you can pick out the highlights. My experience of ghost writing (if you’ll pardon the pun) should have helped, but it was not a good one. Trying to collaborate with a person unwilling to divulge information that would bring their story alive was disheartening. I couldn’t do my job properly but, in the end, I had to accept it was their story and that was that. And even though it paid better than my own novels, I am not keen to take on another commission like this. For a eulogy, there is no need to compromise with its subject. They are dead. Though you do have to collaborate with family. In particular, the chief mourner.

But what if the deceased was a difficult person? The meaning of ‘eulogy’ is to praise someone and yet this is not always easy. How do you represent them in death if they were a grouchy bastard in life? I suppose, you approach it as if writing a difficult character. You look at the whole person, you walk in their shoes, you show their truth. Now is not the time to judge, but to endeavour to reach some understanding of what made this person who they were. If you are writing a tribute to a cantankerous old person, remember they weren’t always old — even if they were always cantankerous. We can never truly know what made a person who they were but, as writers, it is our job to try.

Take my great aunt. Ruth was the same age as the late Queen Elizabeth and died the year before the monarch. She never married or had children, so the task fell to me to write her eulogy. I did not write about the woman she was in the run up to her death – grouchy, in a care home during Covid – for she was much more than her frail old age. Instead, I talked about who she was in life: fiercely independent, pioneer of composting and recycling, relief dairy worker, record-breaking collector of Christian Aid, wartime Wren who worked on Enigma, who kept that top secret all those years, even from her parents, until the 1990s, surprising us all. Opinionated, eccentric, generous. Unique.

And then there was my grandmother. Born in the last year of the Great War, she was christened in her first bathwater, her father advised by the doctor to ‘keep baby with mother’; a measly three-and-a-bit pounds, she was not expected to make it through the night. Married straight out of school, blighted by the outbreak of another war, her twenty-first birthday present was my mother. Two marriages, one of forty-four years, another of twenty-five, she was more than a homemaker, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. She was a guerrilla gardener. An antique hunter. A proud Bristolian. A volunteer hospice driver until her licence was prised from her octogenarian hands. Fun and feisty, she loved nothing more than her family, a strong cup of Typhoo, an afternoon nap, a chinwag, roadside picnics, Scott Joplin and Spain. That fragile baby lived until she was ninety-one. Hers was the first eulogy I gave. I wrote it in the second person, addressing her as if in a letter, which enabled me to keep her central to the narrative. She was the main character after all. And the lynchpin of our family, holding us together even after death through our enduring memories of her. We all miss her still, but she lives on in a tot of whisky in a bedtime cocoa. In a snatch of ragtime. Runner beans in the heat of summer.

Nan’s second husband, David, was much younger. She neglected to tell him her age, so it came as a surprise when they signed the marriage register. A gentle man, he raised his eyebrow, just ever so slightly. After her death, he lived on for a decade. Without children of his own, we were his chosen family and, when the time came, it fell to me once again to write the eulogy. As we’d only known David in his later years, this required research. My mother helped, as did my aunt and cousins, but I had to liaise with his elderly brothers over their shared childhood in rural Somerset. His national service in the Air Force. His career at Filton working on Concorde. It was easy to pick out his passions — other than my grandmother and their shared love of gardening and Andalusian holidays, it was photography, fossils, and photographs of fossils. He and my grandmother also took on the role of neighbourhood bonfire-chaser — hunting down the source of smoke to earbash those responsible. David’s last months were spent in a care home near my mother who wanted him close by as this is what her mother would have wanted. But this quiet gentleman’s legacy spread wide, far beyond his final four walls. All the way across the ocean to the Hudson, to the wings of the Airbus A320, descendants of those he had worked on at Filton, wings which held the passengers of US1549 until rescue.

Writing is about the details, the specifics. Nowhere more so than in the eulogy where an anecdote can illuminate a life. But if the death is sudden or unexpected, if the person died by their own hands or by another, or if they are very young, you still should not define them by their death. Their life was more than the moment they stopped breathing. Even if they were never able to take a first breath, there are still things you can say about the baby that the grieving parents were getting to know in the womb. The wriggles, the hiccups, their reaction to spicy food. In whichever way someone died, remember the life that was lived, even if very short, even if difficult.

I was not allowed to go to my father’s funeral. Not just because I was a child, but because his death was by suicide. I can only imagine the emptiness of the church, my mother’s conflicted emotions, left to look after three children with no idea how to pay the bills. The Winter of Discontent, snow on the ground, dustbins piled up in the streets. Dad would not have had the full Christian burial rites; I doubt there was any meaningful eulogy. However, this might well be my next one. As part of the book I am writing, D is for Death, I will visit the remote Exmoor village where my father lies alongside generations of ancestors. I will give a eulogy at his graveside, even if I am the only one to hear it. I will remember that Stephen Nigel Stenner 1933–1978 was more than those dates. He was the dash in between. Funny, kind, clever, he had a golf handicap of four and, as a teenage midshipman, was almost killed by a machete during a riot in Jamaica. He gave me my love of books and taught me backgammon. I see him in my brothers though they are now much older than he was when he died. He was my dad and he deserves a eulogy. We all do. So, if you are ever asked to write one, I urge you to agree. Writer or not, it will be one of the most meaningful commissions you ever accept. As George Eliot said, ‘Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.’ A eulogy is a way to remember.

Sophie Duffy writes novels about family relationships. Her first nonfiction book D is for Death will be published by Hero Press in spring 2024. Hailing from the West Country, she is now an honorary northerner living on the Wirral.

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