I’ve done more public speaking this year than I typically do. In January, I participated in a Women in Clothes event at Harvard Bookstore. I recently began running a monthly meeting at work that requires more speaking. I surprised myself by getting up at a story slam and telling a story (for which I won first prize!). In my essay-writing class at Grub St., we had to read all of our essays aloud to the class. But, by far, the most challenging public speaking I needed to do was give the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral in March.
I don’t like public speaking. I don’t much like private speaking, to be honest. I prefer writing. And silence. But when my grandmother died and we went to the funeral home to make arrangements, the funeral director gave us a book of readings to choose from for her funeral mass. My grandmother was a devout Catholic, and went to church every Sunday until she got too sick to go. But it didn’t seem right to me that these religious readings, talking about the grace of God and faith and Jesus, etc., were the only words to be said about my grandmother at her funeral. So I mentioned to my family that it was too bad there wasn’t an opportunity to say something more about her life. Cut to the next morning, when I got a phone call from my mother where she shared the “good news” that we were allowed to say some words about my grandmother at the end of the funeral mass–and that my family had nominated me for the job.
The word “eulogy” comes from ancient Greek, meaning “praise.” Apparently, any speech praising someone, whether it be for retirement or at a funeral, can be a eulogy, even though we most commonly associate its use with death. As I sat the afternoon before the funeral and tried to write my first eulogy, I realized the sheer weight of what I was attempting to do. I wasn’t just talking about what my grandmother had meant to me or giving biographical facts of her life–no, a good eulogy must encompass those things, but also, at the same time, try to encapsulate the essence of a person and what that person meant to everyone assembled to honor their memory. That task is daunting for anyone, but was especially daunting for me, realizing I’d only known my grandmother for a fraction of her life, and only in a capacity as a grandmother–she wasn’t my mother or my friend or my cousin or my sister, as she was to the others gathered at the church that day. I had to somehow make my limited experience and knowledge of her life stand for something larger, something that would be understood by everyone there.
But isn’t that what all good writing should aim to do? Make the personal universal in some way?
My great-uncle passed away two weeks ago. He was 94 and had been married to my father’s mother’s sister–the day of his funeral would have been their 71st wedding anniversary, had either of them been alive to see it. I like to think they were celebrating together, somewhere. Though perhaps a “great-uncle” isn’t typically a close relationship in one’s life, my uncle was a strong force in mine–one of my very favorite people in the whole world. He was sharp and thoughtful and kind and funny. He was the kind of person who was your best friend within 5 minutes of meeting you. In fact, though he’d lived on his own until very nearly the end, he’d needed to go to a nursing home to recuperate after falling recently, so he’d spent the last six weeks of his life there. In that short time, he’d made such an impression on one woman, who would visit her sister, also a patient there, that this woman came to his funeral, bearing a tray of homemade scones, which she explained was an Irish tradition.
His nephew, who’d been his primary caretaker, gave his eulogy at the funeral, and it was lovely. But it made me reflect, again, on how insufficient words are in the face of something as primal and permanent as death, and how limited our own experiences of people are. How no one person can ever truly know another person. There are too many facets, too many complicated inner workings and circumstances and thoughts.
But we try. And when words are one of the only things we have, we must make the most of them. Words can’t express what my grandmother or my uncle, or any other family member who’s passed away, meant to me. They also can’t express the sorrow I’ve felt for close friends who’ve suffered devastating loss. But they are something–perhaps not as good as scones, but they are something.