real life

'I'm a funeral celebrant. Here's what I know about writing the "perfect" eulogy.'

I dreamt of my mum last night. She kept appearing in familiar places — on the couch, in a shopping mall. I asked her a question, I can't remember what. She smiled and disappeared.

My mum died three months ago. I volunteered to do the eulogy. I had structured my novel, The Eulogy, around a fictional guide on how to write a eulogy. I tried to take my own advice.

My how-to:

How to write a eulogy.

Keep it short.

I kept my mum's eulogy to two, single-spaced A4 typed pages. Five minutes is good. (My brother did the same. We were old hands.)

Include a chronology of the person's major life milestones.

Attendees at a funeral probably knew the deceased person at different stages in their lives, or in different roles – mum, neighbour, friend. It's good for everyone to hear about the person and all that they were.

A funeral is also the time when the family and friends start to talk about the person in the past tense. Telling their story, in this way, is an important step in absorbing the knowledge that the person is dead. By the end of the eulogy, it feels right that the story has come to a close.

Share some personal stories.

People will share lots of personal stories at the wake, so you don't have to say everything in the eulogy. The eulogy is the time for a few personal memories, ones that help tell the story, and help you say goodbye.

Address your last words to your person.

Most of the eulogy has been for the gathered attendees, but the last words are for your person.

Watch: How to start a eulogy. Post continues after video.

Video via YouTube/TEDx Talks.

When it's complicated...

I didn’t want to write a eulogy which glossed over the negatives. I also didn't want that to be the sole focus. Mum had been abusive, but she had cared for us, especially my disabled sister.

I tried to put myself in her shoes. I imagined what it may have been like to be my mum, a Singaporean woman in her twenties, living in an Australian suburban army barracks, her husband often away. Before that, she had been a child during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War II, living through untold horrors.

My mum had spent much of her life angry. We, her children, all carried the scars. I needed to acknowledge that. 

Here's what I said.

"I'm not a psychologist, and I don't want to gloss over the negatives. But I don't think it was an easy journey for mum. She carried her own trauma. I think she loved us in the best way she could. When she got angry, maybe it was not us, or only us, whom she was angry at. Maybe the love she did give us was more than she had ever received."

I tried to share happy memories, too.

"I do have side-eyed memories of mum's tenderness…

"Some of my happiest memories with mum are watching TV. I remember watching the Australian Open with her every year in the summer holidays. Sometimes, in the evening in front of the TV, she would bring us each a bowl of ice cream, Neapolitan flavour. I remember the smile on her face when she did that. "

Mum had spent her last years living with dementia. This is a horrible disease, gradually subtracting a person from themselves as it had done with my sister. With mum, we had been lucky. Dementia seemed to subtract her anger and leave the joy. I needed to say something about the unexpected opportunity to feel loved.


"Mum. The grin on your face when one of us came to see you. I like to think the dementia let you say things you had never said before. Maybe you had thought them over the years. 

"Maybe you had not realised how much your love, how much you, might matter to us; how much your words might mean to us. 

"'Good girl, nice girl, good daughter. Love you.' I am grateful I heard these words from you."

I finished the eulogy with my version of the Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono, which translates as "making things right." I looked towards her as I said the following.

"Mum, I love you too. We forgive you. We love you. We're sorry. Please forgive us. Thank you. Now lay down your burdens and be at peace."

On my way back to my seat I stopped and leaned over her casket. I whispered a few words into the wood and gave it, her, a kiss goodbye.

Listen to MID where Dr Jackie Bailey shares her experience of a great deal of loss, and how she spends her life walking people through it, helping them prepare for it, and acknowledging it when it happens.

Dr Jackie Bailey is an author, a funeral celebrant, an interfaith minister and a death walker. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Feature image: Supplied.

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