Paying tribute

March 28, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 7
Melissa Miller |

When my dad died, I worked with family members to prepare a eulogy. I gave the first draft to my husband, and asked for feedback.

“It’s good,” he said slowly, and then gently added, “It’s a little too good.” (I knew immediately what he meant, but waited for his explanation.) “It’s important to speak of the whole person, the good and the not-so-good,” he offered. “It’s important to tell the truth.”

This is one of the delicate matters to negotiate when paying tribute: what to say and what not to say. Increasingly, funeral services include a eulogy or collection of family memories. This is often a highlight of the service, particularly as people channel their grief into poignant, heartfelt remarks. Such truth-telling personalizes and adds meaning to the service, and helps mourners move from the dullness of death to life-giving memories of the one who has passed. Often there are funny stories that bring laughter and lighten the weight of mourning. Significant qualities of the deceased are named. We hear something of the truth about him or her, and in doing so we conjure up a sense of the deceased’s living presence.

Still, there are challenges in this task, such as the timing and content of the remarks. How do we pay tribute with respect and love, while including the truth of a person’s life? What do we include? What do we leave out? What fits into the eulogy of the service? And what is best said in other times and places?

Deciding who will give the eulogy is one of those challenges. In some families, it’s relatively clear, and the speech falls naturally to the eldest child or to an individual who is most able to fulfill the honour, often by extracting stories from others and then creating a composite description. Some families get snagged on assigning the eulogy, maybe because of unfinished business with the deceased, communication difficulties or even by grief that is too heavy for public reminiscing. At such times, a pastor or family friend can help.

When I meet with family members to plan a funeral, I encourage them to prepare remarks in the range of five to 10 minutes, and many do so. There are a number of reasons for such a guideline. A funeral service has a number of elements, such as music, Scripture and a sermon. There is often time at the graveside. Likely a meal and visiting take place afterwards. Out of respect for the mourners, especially those who have difficulty sitting for long periods of time, it’s important to plan a service of a reasonable length. Another reason is to reduce redundant comments. While 13 grandchildren may all cherish the memory of Oma’s zwieback or Grandpa’s crokinole skills, it isn’t necessary for each of them to say that during the funeral.

Finally, we remember the place of funeral services in the Christian church. A Christian’s funeral is a worship service. Remembering one person’s life occurs within the larger sphere of proclaiming God’s expansive eternity. At such times, our primary focus is on God, on the comfort that we receive from God’s gifts of love and grace, and on the promise and hope that we share in Christ’s resurrection. Paying tribute to the deceased should not take over the tribute we pay to the God who created us, blesses us throughout our lives and sustains us at the point of death.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, where she works as a pastor and counsellor. Her family ties include that of daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.

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