JIM THIELMAN: So You’ve Been Asked To Write A Eulogy — Now What?

It’s always summer. A few days until the Fourth of July in a small Minnesota town surrounded by lakes.

For nearly 50 years, that was the setting each time I thought of my cousin, Dave. So I had the beginning written when I was invited to do his eulogy.

Even though I never considered myself for this role, I didn’t hesitate to accept. That reaction was puzzling. First of all, I never owned a couch until I was 40. If you don’t want the responsibility of owning a couch, you probably shouldn’t have the responsibility of doing a eulogy. Then there was this: I never paid much attention to eulogies.

For most of my life, funerals have been, well, funereal. Today, there seems to be a little more New Orleans jazz funeral celebration to these goodbyes.

So that was the guide: Write a eulogy that Dave wouldn’t have walked out on. He was a fun guy. And a dignified guy.

Hitting both marks seemed way too easy. That should have been a red flag.

Figuring it can’t be that easy, I considered Google. I decided against it.

If there was a prescription for this kind of thing, I envisioned a lot of protocol and stern advice. Those can’t be good for anyone.

The key, I concluded, was to have conversations with people. I’d been a journalist. Wasn’t this mere reporting?

I had written a couple of drafts before I spoke with one of Dave’s former students. The eulogy was OK at that point. OK wasn’t going to be good enough for a guy who would be standing in a packed church and had never given a speech.

She gave me the money part of the eulogy. I knew I was set. But it still needed a few wisps.

Long ago, I learned to keep people talking when they say, “I’m not sure I have anything to add.”

A cousin conceded he had nothing to offer, then recalled a Great Dane. It was a small bit, but it contrasted with something Dave’s wife had said. I’d use the Great Dane line.

Dave was a music man. Yet another cousin said they spent an entire summer together as youths. Neither he nor Dave had any interest in music. He recalled a piano that was never played.

Loved that image of the dusty piano. And the little mystery. When did musical notes start clicking in Dave’s head? None of us would ever know.

After the funeral, I did an internet search of eulogies. There’s plenty of advice out there. Glad I didn’t read any of it.

Some of the advice focused on what a big responsibility this is. Geez. Who needs that kind of pressure? No article said anything about the table scraps of a Great Dane story having value.

If you must give a eulogy, don’t Google how to do it. It’s pointillism. A lot of little dots on a canvas. After a few drafts, you step back and have Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Or so it seems.

What the audience wants is some comfort and honesty. Laughter is good. They’re not setting the bar high.

I wasn’t prepared for the beginning or the end. I learned the service opened with my eulogy about 10 minutes before it began.

“I’m the warm-up act?”

Shortly after I began, they laughed in a spot I wrote as slightly amusing character development.

Fortunately, I’d read that Jack Benny was admired as a comedian as much for this timing as material. He knew not to walk on that audience.

I waited for them to quit laughing as I thought, “I’m really going to have to wait after I get to this one part.” I knew it was hilarious. It got no reaction. So I pushed on.

When I met the priest, he noticed the first page of my laser-printed eulogy had pen edits. Told him I couldn’t help myself when it came to rewriting.

He said he gave three sermons a day, noted what didn’t work in the first one and rewrote for the second. Again for the third.

“So the early service is off-Broadway?” I asked?

What I didn’t consider was the end. Silence. I didn’t expect applause. Didn’t know if the priest was supposed to walk to the lectern and take over the joint.


So I methodically gathered my 10 pages and exited stage left. Was it the right thing to do? Too late. I was doing it. Told myself, “I’m sure this is fine. I doubt anyone else here has given much thought to eulogies, either.”

* * *


Leave a Reply