Capturing a life

Charles 8 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

From 7 Up in 1964 to 56 Up today, this remarkable documentary series has been filming the same group of people for a biblical seven days of their lives every seven years for almost five decades. Catch 56 Up on ITV at 9pm this Monday, and, if the last two episodes are anything to go by, expect the participants to keep stressing that we’re only getting a tiny, distorting glimpse of the life journey that’s made them who they are. This historic social record has got me musing about how difficult it must be to capture the essence of someone in a funeral eulogy. 

As a student I once told my grandmother I had a Saturday job in M&S in order to save up for a holiday on the continent. Her response has stuck with me. ‘When I was young, I had a boyfriend who took me dancing in a hotel on the weekend,’ she began. ‘My mother enquired how he could afford to treat me in this way. When I asked him, he confessed he lived very frugally during the week. So in my day, we went without in order to have a bit of luxury whereas you take jobs so you don’t have to make such sacrifices. And let me add I think your way is better!’ 

At her funeral several years later, I was struck by the realisation that I would never have the opportunity to really know her story, fears or desires; the inner workings that made her unique. Sure, there were some anecdotes I cherished, but so much was missing. I wouldn’t have wanted such insights shared at her funeral either. 

It’s another thing to take up genealogy or employ one of many online companies such as The Memory Works – here – which offer personal and family biographies as leatherbound keepsakes. A lot of elderly people wish to leave a record of learning, love and legacy for future generations.


  1. Charles

    I am intrigued by the 56 Up series – don’t you just want to go back to those little kids age 7 and put things right… ‘What’s university?’ is the one that stuck in my mind.

    How many times have we wished we had paid more attention to our parents’ and grandparents’ stories….There is an argument that says that in two generations we are supposed to forget, that’s the way it should be. When my father was dying and I said that his grandchildren were coming to see him. He said, with no sense of self pity or bitterness, just as a matter of fact: ” They’ll forget about me mostly, maybe remember odd things now and then, and get on with their own lives, but that’s as it should be…” I found it really hard as he said it, but realise that there is more than a grain of truth in it. What they do remember is the sense of overwhelming, unconditional love that he gave them.

    Not that I’m elderly yet, but my daughter gave me a book to complete – ( 5 years ago) called ‘Grandparents’ Journal’ adding all sorts of little memories – with prompts (v handy) and space for photos – for our grandchildren…. now where did I put it?

  2. Charles

    I’m moved with admiration for your father’s words, Evelyn, thank you. He sounds to me what an irish friend years ago would have called “a whole man.” He was not afraid to let go.

    And how very true that it’s the memory of unconditional love they will keep, not “…that time we all went to…” or “he worked for XYZ until 19…” Feelings, not facts.

    So much can’t be captured, or even shouldn’t be attempted in a eulogy, and yet – they can be wonderful words. I expect you know the book “Well-Remembered Friends,’ eulogies collected by Angela Huth.

  3. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson


    It was that debate about words in a previous thread that triggered this blog.

    “So much can’t be captured, or even shouldn’t be attempted in a eulogy, and yet – they can be wonderful words”.

    I agree but to challenge us to dig deeper regarding the importance of words in civil funerals, can you expound on what can and cannot be captured in eulogies?

  4. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    Evelyn, I agree with GM, a wonderful anecdote about your father. I guess generations do forget but historians thankfully record and the more we leave them the better.

  5. Charles

    Thank you GM and RR – other lives touched by my father’s story! GM – that’s a lovely concept “a whole man” – I like that a lot, thank you. I will seek out Angela Huth.

    RR In reply to your question “what can and cannot be captured in a eulogy” – I guess it depends on the writer’s style – storyteller? journalist? biographer? lawyer? For me it’s trying to evoke the memory that they have as they tell me the story… that look that passes between parents as they laugh out loud saying, ” we brought him home in a Triumph Spitfire – I don’t know how on earth we fitted a baby in a sports car!” If I can get that moment back for the them in the course of the eulogy to their 35 year old firstborn who died of a heroin overdose….

    Words are everything and nothing, it’s what they wrap uo that matters and how effective the eulogist is at a kind of verbal pass the parcel, allowing surprises to fall out when the melody of life’s song pauses.

    Of course sometimes it’s what you don’t say that is vital! The middle aged children of a wifebeating alcoholic certainly don’t want any ‘surprises’ in his eulogy.

    I think they all want your understanding – whether their memories are beautiful or horrific. Sometimes it’s enough for them to know you know, so when I say ‘B was a man’s man, he liked going to the pub, he wasn’t a hands on nappy changing modern Dad..’ they know that I know, and just about everyone else in the room knows, he was more of a fists on Dad.

    I know that significant pillars of society perhaps need more of a historical, factual chronology, but I think that’s the obituary writer’s job surely?

    I can’t give a lesson on eulogy writing, for me it’s meeting ordinary families and listening to them and their stories and passing those stories back in a way that says ” I heard you.” It’s not even capturing the essence of them, it’s more gathering together the whispers and echoes of their memories.

    That sounds very fanciful – sometimes it’s just very plain and simple – and then she… and then she…. and then OH she loved Countdown!

    Why would use of good words should be confined to civil funerals – surely a minister of religion ought to be writing a good eulogy too?

  6. Charles

    Well done Evelyn. I started replying to Richard’s question and gave up when I realised it was well-suited to a PhD! I have just seen a family and I have already decided that there’s going to be one sentence about his career, successful as he was.

  7. Charles

    This probably sounds simplistic, but I often ask people to tell me what they want to hear said in the room. That reminds them to tell me “don’t say this, but…” if there’s something they want me to understand but they want it left out. It also I think helps me to help them move beyond “he left the Sun Alliance in 1973 and moved to the Pru.” (so……what?if that doesn’t sound too cruel, i.e. where’s the meaning you want to take home with you? Not a list of insurance companies, surely?) and it also helps me, and maybe them to realise that it’s a live event ( if you see what I mean) and not a literary product. I do like Evelyn’s “gathering the whispers and echoes of their memories!”

  8. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    Evelyn, belated thanks for your insights into eulogy writing. I liked the memory of taking home a firstborn in a Triumph Spitfire as they mourn his loss due to drugs just a few short decades later. Showing understanding about what to say and what not to say is key.

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