Writing and delivering a eulogy is one of the hardest things some of us will ever do.
Writing and delivering a eulogy is one of the hardest things some of us will ever do.
A task that can be difficult enough at the best of times — writing beautifully and sounding eloquent — intensifies when we’re feeling the grief that follows a death. And then there’s the deadline pressure when we must write the perfect speech on very short notice, during a time that may be busy already with arrangements. Emotions and stress can combine to make us feel like we’ll never be able to say all the right things.
The best eulogies are the ones that, despite the pressure, capture the essence of someone who has died. That’s no easy feat either, but some of the most effective eulogies manage to do it in just a short speech. Whether it makes us weep or laugh or both, an excellent eulogy helps us remember and provides for closure. Here are a few of our favorites, some of the best eulogies of modern times.
Eulogy for The Rev. Mychal Judge by The Rev. Michael Duffy
Father Judge was a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, and he was the first person declared dead in the 9/11 attacks. He died while ministering to the firefighters who were trying to rescue civilians trapped in the Twin Towers, and it was the kind of work he loved — when he heard of the attacks, he dashed to the towers, knowing he was needed.
Father Duffy’s eulogy for Judge is perhaps about as perfect as a eulogy gets — it’s touching and honest, getting to the heart of Judge’s life and character while helping mourners remember every aspect of him. It’s funny, but not uproarious; there’s just enough lightness in it to keep listeners from dissolving in grief over the death of such a good man during the tumultuous post-9/11 days. Duffy explained what he thought Judge’s mission was, in life and death: “And the next few weeks, we’re going to have names added, name after name of people, who are being brought out of that rubble. And Mychal Judge is going to be on the other side of death to greet them instead of sending them there. And he’s going to greet them with that big Irish smile. He’s going to take them by the arm and the hand and say, ‘Welcome, I want to take you to my Father.’ And so, he can continue doing in death what he couldn’t do in life.”
Eulogy for the Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger by Ronald Reagan
A nation was shocked when, in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members. Among them was teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first participant in the NASA Teacher in Space Project and a beacon to schoolchildren around the country. The launch was televised in many schools, and confusion and horror overtook the classrooms that witnessed the explosion.
President Reagan had planned to deliver a State of the Union address that evening, but he switched gears and offered a eulogy to the Challenger astronauts instead. He spoke of the bravery of the crew and their role as pioneers in space exploration. Perhaps most moving was the moment when he shifted his focus toward speaking to the children who witnessed the disaster, talking frankly to them and explaining, “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery.”
Eulogy for Rosa Parks by Oprah Winfrey
Parks is one of the most admired women in U.S. history, a fact that’s evident here at Legacy, where her Guest Book contains more signatures than any other we’ve ever published. The combination of her fight for justice and her gentle heart made her widely beloved, and Winfrey captured a bit of that love — as well as remembering Parks’ key role in the civil rights movement — when she eulogized her.
Winfrey’s eulogy was a short remembrance of Parks, but it became particularly powerful through its use of repetition, particularly the sentence, “We shall not be moved.” Evoking the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, as well as Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus, Winfrey returned to the sentence again and again as she spoke.
Eulogy for Steve Irwin by Bindi Irwin
Not everyone who delivers a moving eulogy is a seasoned public speaker like Winfrey. Bindi Irwin was just 8 years old when her father, the “Crocodile Hunter,” was killed by a stingray barb. Bindi had been appearing on television with her dad for years, but none of the adventure and excitement they experienced together could have prepared her for the devastation of losing her dad — or the pressure of pay tribute to him in front of a TV audience of millions.
Bindi wrote the eulogy herself and read it with confidence in front of her huge audience. It’s simple and short, but in just a few paragraphs, Bindi managed to express her love for Irwin as well as call on his fans to continue the important animal conservation work that he did. Bindi’s opening words, “My daddy was my hero,” summed it up beautifully.
Eulogy for Steve Jobs by Mona Simpson
Jobs and Simpson, brother and sister, didn’t meet, or even know of each other’s existence, until both were adults. But they quickly formed a bond after they met, and as Simpson told it, Jobs became not just a brother to her, but also a stand-in for the birth father whom neither knew, even walking her down the aisle at her wedding.
As Simpson shared her stories of her years getting to know her brother, she turned his eulogy into something much different from the ones we typically hear for internationally famous people like Jobs. It wasn’t a remembrance of his professional accomplishments — of which there were many. Simpson touched on a few of them, but she kept his professional achievements brief in favor of painting a picture of Jobs as a whole person. She talked about his personality, his love for his family, and his quirks. And in a heart-wrenching closing, she shared his final words.
Eulogy for The Rev. Clementa Pinckney by President Barack Obama
Pinckney was both a reverend and a state senator, and it was in the latter capacity that he met the president who would later become his eulogist. He wasn’t widely known outside his home state of South Carolina — at least, not until his death. The mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that took Pinckney’s life along with eight others was, sadly, the event that brought his good works to the attention of a nation.
Obama’s eulogy talked of Pinckney’s many years of service, and it explored the role of the church in African-American life. It called for an end to violence, inspiring shouts of agreement from the congregation. And it saw the president moved to burst into song, singing “Amazing Grace” in remembrance of Pinckney and the other eight who died with him. Many call it President Obama’s greatest speech.
Eulogy for Graham Chapman by John Cleese
Not all eulogies are entirely serious … especially when the deceased was not entirely serious, and Chapman was about as far from serious as one can get. A member of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, he was responsible for some of the most ridiculous and hilarious comedy sketches in the history of British television.
His eulogist, fellow Python alum Cleese, was responsible, according to the speaker, for the first instance of the f-bomb at a British memorial service, and he dropped it during Chapman’s eulogy — after imagining that Chapman was whispering in his ear, goading him to do it. Cleese went on to tell story after story of Chapman’s silliness, each goofier and more inappropriate than the last, sparing little time for seriousness. He explained simply why he chose to tell such stories at his friend’s memorial: “(Chapman) would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste.”
Eulogy for Lorna Colbert by Stephen Colbert
While some eulogies, like Cleese’s for Chapman, are very funny indeed, there are times when even a comedian puts away the shtick in favor of heartfelt remembrance. Colbert did just that when he spoke of his mother on his show, The Colbert Report, a week after her death.
Lorna Colbert wasn’t famous, but many viewers felt as if they got to know her on the day when her well-known son spoke of her life. They also got to know a little more about the comedian she raised, as he credited her for his own success. Colbert surprised his viewers with his turn toward the serious that night, and the jarring contrast between his usual irreverent humor and the emotional eulogy made the memorial all the more powerful.
Eulogy for Richard Nixon by Bill Clinton
President Nixon was certainly not a man who was universally admired. Though his presidency had its successes, it was deeply marred by his involvement in the Watergate scandal, and many remember him most for that.
President Clinton didn’t shy away from acknowledging that historical moment in his eulogy for Nixon — how could he? But as a president who made a few mistakes of his own, Clinton knew, and reminded his listeners, that a legacy is made up of all the facets of one’s life, not just the bad decisions made in it. So he focused on Nixon’s broader legacy, reminding the audience that, “Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” They were words that should resonate with anyone who isn’t perfect.