Eulogies are never the last word

Charles 2 Comments



“There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows … Eulogies are never the last word.”

That’s a quote from an article sent to me by a friend (thanks, Kathryn). In full, it’s even better:

“I had nearly forgotten how death plays out over time — not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and nonbeing, but the slower arc of our leaving, the long goodbye — sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. It is like the decommissioning of a great battleship. There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows — the disposition of so much tonnage. Eulogies are never the last word.”

Never the last word, maybe, but eulogies are important to those who hear them because they serve a particular purpose within a particular context. The context, a funeral, is an event which attempts to restore order after the disruption of a death: to settle people’s minds and assure them that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.

Hence the orderly format of a funeral eulogy. It’s customarily a story. The story form works best because, with its beginning, middle and end, it is complete in itself, as is, now, the life of the one who died. Much more comforting to think of a life being tidily complete rather than raggedly cut short leaving lots of loose ends.

But, however psychologically therapeutic, a eulogy is not, actually, the last word because, yes, “death plays out over time”.

And there’s more to it than that. Eulogies are written from the memories of others, and memories are not good places for archiving stuff.  In his autobiography, Matthew Parris quotes from the memoir of politician John Payton:

“Memory loses much that was important, and yet clings on to, and preserves, quite small things which, like stray, unconnected footprints, have escaped erosion by the winds and tides of time. [Much is] lost beyond recovery: of the remainder, some glimpsed like a fish in clear, still water, vanish as you move towards them; the outstretched hand comes back empty but for some bits of unmemorable debris from the bed of the stream.”

All funeral celebrants have suffered some of that when gathering material for their life stories.

Parris concludes:

“A life is not a story, any more than a yew tree is a bird. Topiary can make a yew tree into a bird, and a determined editor’s shears can clip a shapeless history into apparent significance; but the meaning is as illusory as a yew peacock.”

Or, in the words of the poet John Fuller in his poem My Future:

I am your memories. They are not me.
So it feels strange to be remembered by
These relics of my personality.

Although you mourn me, is it really me
You mourn, or thoughts of me that make you cry?
I am your memories. They are not me.


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9 years ago

Thought provoking stuff – especially for celebrants and ministers. Of course, a eulogy will never be accurate and neither can it be the last word. The eulogy and the funeral is just the beginning – and that should be acknowledged at some point. But all the functions of a funeral – the eulogy, the tidying up and restoring some order at a time of confusion and fracture, the letting go of the old and turning them to face the new – are purposeful, familiar, comforting. It’s rather like your first day at school when you find out you have to… Read more »

9 years ago

If I die before my other half does, I hope he asks my friends to write about me. He doesn’t remember anything!
They say memories are golden, well maybe that is true
I never wanted memories, I only wanted you…