How to do a funeral speech – the lessons I learnt from my two Grandads
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Earlier this week I was at a funeral. It was a small service of about 15 or 20 people for a man in his 60’s who passed away. The civil celebrant who was officiating at the funeral had planned a short simple service as the man’s daughter had planned to give a eulogy herself as part of it. But when the time came she was too upset and just couldn’t get up and do it. The celebrant asked her friend if perhaps she would be able to get up and read it instead, but she wasn’t able to either. He asked the group if there was anyone else who might like to get up and share their memories, reminding them that they were among friends. One man got up but was very upset and after a couple of choked sobs he sat straight down again. I always think it’s such a pity when this happens.
A funeral is such a beautiful chance to share thoughts and memories about someone you love but it is so tough for some people to get up and speak full-stop, let alone under such emotional circumstances.
I did my first funeral speech when my first grandparent died and I learnt a very valuable lesson then. Since then it’s become expected that I speak at family funerals…so I’ve done a lot of them.
I thought I’d share the two most valuable things I have learnt about giving funeral speeches – one taught to me by each of my grandads.
Don’t be afraid to cry
This one was taught to me by Grandad Twist – my mum’s dad. It was almost a decade
ago now that he died. I was the eldest of four grandkids and it was suggested it might be nice for me to get up and speak on behalf of myself, my brother, and my cousins. I was planning what I would say and the funeral director spoke to me the day before the funeral and tried to give me some tips on how not to cry while speaking. I can’t even remember what she told me but I do remember thinking afterwards ‘what’s wrong with me crying when I’m up there?’ so that was pretty much how I began my speech. I said that I’d been given tips how not to cry but that my grandad was dead and I was sad and if I needed to cry I was damn well going to do it and they’d all just have to watch me. (Seriously this is what I said. You can get away with all sorts in a funeral speech! One day I’ll write a blog about all the crazy things I’ve said up there……Actually you’ll see what I mean when you get to the next point)
Everyone present is there for the same reason you are and are all feeling some variation of the same emotions as you. No-one cares if you cry. Who cares if water comes out your eyes and your face goes a bit blotchy? Who cares if your breathing gets a bit funny? Who cares if you need to blow your nose? You’ll happily do it in public a hundred times when you have a cold. Are you worried people will see you are sad? They know you are so forget about it.
Telling yourself you aren’t supposed to cry and are supposed to hold it together up there (whose idea was that anyway?) will make it waaaaaay harder on you, especially if you are already nervous about speaking in front of a group.
Hey, I don’t love the idea of standing up and blubbing to a room either. But I have done it often enough to know that the best thing you can do when you have to get up and speak at a funeral is tell yourself that you might, and that it’s fine. And if you need to even start by telling everyone else that you might then do just that – it helps.
Maybe crying will make you or someone else uncomfortable but if you have something you want to share about the person you’ve lost then don’t let anything stop you. It might be your last chance to share with this particular group of people. One of the beautiful things about funerals is that they bring the people in your life together in one place the way no other event, not even a wedding, can. There might be something tiny that you share that will bring a smile to the face of someone there or make them feel better.
Heck, what are you worried about? They’re just tears.
Be honest. Be brutally honest.
The other most important lesson I learnt was from Grandad West – my dad’s dad. He died about 7 years ago. In a nutshell Grandad West was a very tough man. It wasn’t all bad of course – it never is – but in general he was very strict, quite controlling, could be pretty mean at times. In his last couple of years he really mellowed out and was very different, but as kids we really didn’t get very excited about seeing him.
So come funeral time everyone was a bit nervous about speaking. I knew what would happen – everyone would get up and talk about how wonderful he was, and share all these amazing memories and basically fib. A lot. And all the rest of the family would be sitting during the service listening…and recognising all the fibs. So here was the basis of my speech – I pointed out the good things about him but I also said that he was a hard man. I said that he could be mean and that we didn’t always like him. But, I said, I wasn’t going to make up stories to honour a person of my own invention who didn’t even exist. I was there to say goodbye to my Grandad so I wanted to talk about him, warts and all, not some dreamed up fantasy of what I thought he should have been like. Because, and here is the point, he may have been very tough to like at times, but he wasn’t tough to love. He was family – you love your family, it’s a given. No matter what they’ve done and no matter who they are, deep down you still love them. Sorry but there it is. I said in my speech that to get up and talk him up as an angel was to suggest I couldn’t love him just as he was, which I did.
Like my first tip, if you are putting pressure on yourself to have to give some beautiful all-positive happy account of someone you love it’s going to make it that much harder. Share. Be honest. Talk about them as they really were because that’s who you knew and that’s how you loved them.
One day when it’s my turn to go I hope people at my funeral remember to share some of the embarrassing and stupid things I’ve done as well as the fun and exciting. I hope someone remembers to talk about how I could be a right royal stubborn and difficult pain in the backside, as well as all the lovely stuff. Because I want to be remembered and loved for who I really am rather than who people would have liked me to be. Don’t you? And don’t imagine that this isn’t the stuff people want to hear at a funeral. That speech for my Grandad went down really well and quite a few family members, including my nana, wanted copies of it to keep.
So there are my two best tips for funeral speeches. Don’t be afraid to cry, and be very honest. These will take LOADS of pressure off of you and make it much easier to stand up there and share whatever you’d like to with others who are also there to farewell the person you’ve all lost.