The Difficulties of Writing a Eulogy
Having entered my late seventies, I continually receive the painful news of friends dying. This fills me with complex and painful feelings and memories, but I am at the same time often called upon to write a eulogy to read at the memorial service where I try to convey, in a few carefully chosen words, some approximation of who my friends were.
The eulogies tend to recall my friends’ varied accomplishments, virtues, and the public personas they projected, and my sorrow about their loss. If there is time, I include a humorous, telling anecdote that conveys something about their best self—the one I feel they would have wanted to be remembered by. I try not to deal directly with their flaws, for it seems pointless and gratuitously destructive to diminish someone when he/she is gone. But I also want to avoid being emptily rhetorical and untrue to their essence, sounding like many rabbis, ministers, and priests who mawkishly eulogize the departed (whom they may have never met) offering boilerplate platitudes and clichés (e.g., ‘He was a devoted family man and generous to a fault’).
I remember when my father died, we allowed a rabbi who barely knew him to deliver the eulogy. My brother and I primed him with a great deal of information about my father’s life. And the eulogy he gave was neither egregious nor platitudinous. But it remained impersonal. For despite all his fine-sounding learned phrases, the rabbi failed to make my father come alive. He said all the right things, but I wanted something more complex, concrete and individual—a eulogy truer to my father’s memory and life. My eulogy would have centred on my father’s inability, for a complex set of reasons—his coming to the US at sixteen and having to live in near poverty, his confronting unemployment in the 1930s Depression, and his ultimately settling for security and a pension by taking a job as a Post Office clerk—closing him off from realising the fullness of his rich intellectual
potential. I could feel my father’s frustration when I was growing up— doing a job that barely tapped his talent— but he never voiced what he felt. Hopefully, my eulogy would have touched on central truths about my father’s life, and I still rue the day I didn’t deliver it.
When my mother died, I decided to deliver the eulogy at the gravesite. In that eulogy I attempted to capture the quirks of her personality, and to convey a balanced portrait of who she was. I didn’t want to gloss over the truth, and cover over all her flaws and foibles—her profound insecurity, and negativity. (She had a penchant for seeing the dark side of every achievement, and dousing with disapproving remarks much that gave one pleasure.) However, it would have been unfair to a good human being to provide too critical a eulogy and leave as a final memory a distorted image of who my mother was. I know I’m biased, but I think I succeeded in striking the proper tone by being carefully selective. I avoided centring on her weaknesses, and invoked her charm, warmth, and even poetic quality, avoiding undermining her memory. It struck me after I gave the eulogy, how difficult it was to grasp and sum up a person’s character and life, especially someone I loved.
But thinking about parental eulogies, many years ago I attended a memorial service for a famous film critic, at which her painter daughter delivered the kind of eulogy I could never attempt. The eulogy expressed genuine love for her mother but was clear-eyed, forthright, and contained a critical strain. She understood that her mother’s strength as a critic derived from ‘her supreme freedom to speak her mind, and to find her honest voice.’ But the mother’s certainty about her critical judgments, carried over to her life where she ‘believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, had no negative effects.’ In the daughter’s words, her mother lacked the capacity for ‘introspection and self-awareness.’ Still this strain of ‘self-centeredness’ was balanced off by her generosity—helping young critics get jobs and even offering loans and gifts to people in need.
She also loved her mother’s vitality—‘her intense responsiveness to the
world of ideas, people, and natural beauty.’ Even when she became ill and fragile, she was sufficiently strong-willed to attempt to keep up with the most recent films, books, and intellectual currents. In short, she was a person whom the daughter found at times emotionally difficult, but clearly respected and loved.
Her eulogy struck me as a model for how to convey the complicated feelings we have towards our parents. Her concise, perceptive portrait brought her mother to life, while avoiding the maudlin—though I know that when it came to my own mother, I offered a less balanced more positive homage, skirting around some unpleasant truths.
If it’s difficult to eulogise parents, it’s even harder to eulogise friends. I understand some of my friends better than others. Either because I have known them for a longer time, or have been involved with them at work or in political activity—situations that often reveal more of their selves than most of our personal encounters. With a few others I have had the kind of intimate talk where much more of one’s inner life is exposed than the normal commonplaces of daily conversation. Of course, that happens much less with men of my generation, who tend to avoid probing too deeply into the rough edges of their interiors, but it does occur.
Still, I feel confident enough in my powers of observation to speculate on aspects of my friends’ lives that we have never discussed. At the same time, I know it’s merely speculation, and there exists something mysterious and unknowable at the core of everyone we interact with, even those we know most intimately.
In the best fiction and memoirs characters are depicted and analysed in rich detail, but good writers usually also convey that no person can be simply summed up, that everyone is sufficiently complex that they can’t be reduced to some simple typologies or set of adjectives. As Penelope Lively, a profoundly observant and subtle octogenarian English novelist, has written about one of her characters: ‘Behind and beyond her looks, her manner, there had been some dark malaise. But nobody ever saw
it, back then, he thought. All you saw was her face.’ And writing about relationships: ‘It’s the one thing you’re constantly confronted with: other people’s relationships—how wrong you can be about them, too.’
Still, in spite of this, I know that I will write more eulogies, for I know none of us is immortal, and that time’s passage cannot be reversed. I also feel it to be imperative to provide emotional closure for friends.
However, I will continue to hold back writing about certain aspects of a friend’s character—leaving out, for example, how a warm and gregarious friend could at times be malicious in his personal relationships, and how a caring, socially committed friend loved to exercise power over subordinates at work. Or how a humane, honest, very intelligent friend, could also be blind and masochistic when it came to romantic relationships. I try to evoke my friends in a way that grants them some individuality and texture, always understanding by choice and by ultimate lack of knowledge that I have merely scratched the surface, and conveyed a partial truth about who they were.
As for when I myself die and someone writes my eulogy, I’m not sure what I want said. Obviously, I desire only true things to be expressed, but do I want a tough-minded eulogy that gives my myriad flaws a central place? I clearly don’t. What I wish is for the eulogy to avoid the sentimental, offer a few critical words, and define who I was through my accomplishments, passions and persona. I doubt that will be sufficient, for I’m the only one who can portray who I am, and alas I won’t be there.