Speaking at Funerals and Memorials

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Clara and Britta at Urn

The older you get, the more opportunities you will have to attend and speak at memorials and funerals.  A heart-felt tribute to the deceased is a compassionate gift to the bereaved.

I recently had the opportunity, on December 28, 2014, of speaking at my father-in-law’s funeral.  My short memorial speech will follow a few tips on speaking at memorials and funerals.  The picture above is of my daughter and granddaughter visiting my father-in-law’s urn at the memorial.

Tips for speaking at memorials or funerals:

Reflect

Reflect on favorite times, memories, phrases.  Talking with family members may bring back memories, as can photos or old letters (or even the person’s Facebook timeline).  Sometimes, a meaningful prop, such as a favorite possession can give you inspiration and give you something to show while you are speaking.

Prepare to speak from the heart

You may think you can just “wing it,” but you may be overcome with emotion and forget what you want to say.  So, take some time to organize your thoughts.  Write out what you think you want to say, and then reduce it to bullet points on note cards (or on your phone or tablet).  You can either have them out to read from or have them handy “just in case.” You want to speak conversationally, making eye contact with the other attendees as much as possible, for an emotional connection. You don’t have to say things exactly the way you planned to, but that’s OK, because no one but you will know.

You will want to open your speech by explaining your relationship to the deceased.  After that, one great approach is to have a “theme” for your memorial speech, such as a story or two that exemplifies an aspect of the person’s character or values, or the person’s impact on your life.  Everyone loves a good story and stories are easy to remember.  To make your story “come alive” you can add some dialogue or quote a phrase that the person was well known for.   A humorous anecdote will help ease the sadness and bring a welcome relief for the attendees. Refrain from telling outright jokes.

Usually 2-5 or so minutes is an appropriate length, unless you are a family member and want to go on a little longer.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice your remarks out loud at least 3 times.  Imagine speaking to the hearts of the audience in attendance.

Dealing with emotions while speaking

It’s OK if you cry during your speech.  A few tears are an honest show of emotion, but if you feel yourself going into uncontrollable wailing, excuse yourself.  It may be helpful to go up to the speaking area with another family member, who can support you, or even finish your remarks, if you have them written out.

Below is what I had written out to say at my father-in-law’s memorial (I didn’t say it exactly like this, but it’s close.  I went up without notes, as my remarks were short and I had organized the flow so one part reminded me of the next).

Diane Windingland’s Memorial Tribute for Clarion Windingland

 Lucky.

I was lucky to have Clarion Windingland as my father-in-law. 

I was lucky because when you marry someone, you also marry their family. 

And, to paraphrase, Forrest Gump, “Life . . . [or marriage, or in-laws] . . . is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.” 

I was lucky because I got Clarion for a father-in-law. 

I was lucky because Clarion showed my husband, his son, Kim, a great example of what a husband should be. 

Clarion was kind, hard-working, thrifty, but generous and most of all, he loved his wife, Rose. 

Many years ago, when I was interviewing Rose for a short autobiography, I asked her about how she and Clarion met, in Korea. Clarion was sitting at the kitchen table and piped up, “When I saw her from across the room, she was the most beautiful girl there, but what really caught my eye was her eyes, her bright, shining eyes.”  Those bright eyes caught his eye and captured his heart. From that time on, he only had eyes for her. 

Clarion and Rose seemed to do almost everything together.  When I was a newlywed, I thought all that togetherness was a bit odd for an old married couple.  They were in their 40s after all! They even went grocery shopping together.  But for them, it wasn’t just about getting the groceries; it was about getting to spend time together. 

In more recent years, when Clarion’s health declined and he could no longer walk the grocery store aisles with Rose, he still would drive her to the store. He would wait patiently in the car and usually take a little nap.  He would say he was just “resting” his eyes.  But, when Rose came back to the car, he would open his eyes and the twinkle would return as he looked into the “bright eyes” of his love. 

It is my wish, my hope, that every woman has a man love her the way Clarion loved Rose.  For more than 56 years of marriage, Rose was a lucky woman.  And, I was a lucky daughter-in-law.  Thank you, Clarion.

2 thoughts on “Speaking at Funerals and Memorials

  1. This was an excellent article! Thank you so much for writing it. I just wish I had it a few months ago, when I too was asked to give a “talk” at a funeral. It was my first time and especially difficult because it was for a teenager who was a friend of my son and a former student (public speaking class) of mine.

    One thing that helped me get through it was to focus on was the traditional toastmaster’s tips (rule of 3, speak from the heart, tell stories, don’t memorize, etc.). What was especially helpful was that as a toastmaster, I was able to not worry about being “nervous” and instead could use the gift of speech to comfort friends and family.

    Since so many of my former students were in the audience, I knew that this was an additional lesson I had never thought to teach them about. Speeches at funerals are usually not covered in traditional public speaking classes.

    I’d like to add that the one great take away I had from this experience is how much of an honor it is to be asked to give a talk at a funeral. While it truly was the hardest speech that I ever had to write and deliver, it was probably the most rewarding.

  2. Pingback: Critique of Toastmasters video: “Managing Fear” | Remote Possibilities

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