THE HUMBLE ART OF THE EULOGY
On reading the first statement from our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard on the death of her beloved father, John I was thinking of how sorrowful her trip home to Australia must have been.
Perhaps she was mulling over the words she might say at his funeral. Where to start, how to end. How to make sense of a whole life in a short address.
Have you ever delivered a eulogy? I have, only once. It’s daunting, even for an old stager like me. But it’s a sacred task and one that I think you should try to accept, if you are able.
I’d been planning to write something on the topic after attending the memorial for a dear old friend recently and hearing four speakers who did a magnificent job of it. Words carefully chosen can be such a balm for the soul. They can ease pain, deepen friendships and associations and be profoundly affecting, reminding us of the grand themes of life and death.
I think my favourite theatre of all is to listen to words which are offered next to a flickering candle– be it for a baptism, birthday, funeral or memorial service.
These aren’t heroic soliloquies from the pulpit or the podium, but humble words from a brother, sister, daughter, son, a friend or colleague on their feet, holding a scrap of paper in nervous fingers and delivered with halting voice. They have great power.
And so it was with my friend, the late theatre director Nigel Triffitt.
We gathered in the Fairfax studio of the Victorian Art Centre in Melbourne – so appropriate for his life’s calling, no cathedral could have offered anything finer – and his earthly remains were there too. His ashes in a casket on the stage surrounded by candles, some favourite lengths of cloth and statues gathered on his many travels.
What followed was a ritual designed with infinite care that was so perfect for him that I felt his presence and was able to say ‘goodbye’ in a way that truly honoured our friendship. The words expressed everything that I’d loved about Nigel and things I’d forgotten – his indosyncracies, his kindnesses, his petulance, his brilliance. I was able to move from darkness into the light.
What a gift it was! For me. Not him. Because of course, he’s now beyond all caring.
As I say, I have been asked only once to write a eulogy – ten years ago now – for my treasured friend, Mietta O’Donnell and it was a fittingly grand affair for the doyenne of the Melbourne arts and restaurant scene.
The St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church was packed to overflowing, a carpet of roses draped the coffin, Yvonne Kenny sang from the gallery, and the late Ruth Cracknell and I gave the eulogies which were broadcast on ABC radio.
So, you know, no pressure! But I carried it off, I think. My voice cracking only on the very last words … “we do love you so.”
In Richard Walsh’s book, a collection called Great Modern Australian Eulogies, he has this to say: “Unlike obituaries, eulogies are highly personal and intimate. That is why I find them so entrancing, as they provide a small window into deeper human emotions.
“A eulogist addressing friends…wants to be a persuasive advocate. Just as we know that the most persuasive lies embrace as much truth as possible, so it is that conjuring up an unrealistically virtuous life is rarely very convincing, particularly among friends who know otherwise.
“A great eulogy, in my view, is a wonderfully eloquent little dramatic monologue that conjures up the very essence of someone’s spiritual core.”
He says that Australian euologies are often laconic, with a few laughs thrown in. (And yes, I managed to get a couple of laughs during my eulogy for Mietta, which seemed about right because she had showcased my one-woman comedy shows at her restaurant, Mietta’s.)
Walsh says that we shouldn’t give “stuffy” speeches, but instead have the confidence to “paint truthful and humorously affectionate portraits” of our own dear departed.
“We bury even our most significant citizens, not with the overblown pomp for which Americans and Brits strain, but with proper recognition that even our greatest are human beings possessed of good and bad qualities.”
He also rejoices that these days, eulogies have been liberated from the hands of the clergy and the religiosity of sermons about eternal salvation or damnation. Those words have little emotional resonance for most of us.
And also, living in a society that’s secular and humanistic: “… we feel liberated by giving expression to our genuine sadness, and not attempting the stoicism of earlier generations. These days even men feel free to express affection uninhibitedly.”
We are now able to express love, just from one human being to another. The power. And the glory.
To illustrate that, here’s a simple, but moving eulogy from Walsh’s collection given by a mother for her son who died at just eight and half months…
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