Eulogies for the Living

A “eulogy” is usually understood, in the United States, as a short speech of praise in a funeral setting. However, that’s not what a eulogy is, at least by etymology. According to its Greek roots a eulogy is, literally, “good words.” My daughter’s high school speech teacher, Mr. Tom Klubertanz, asks his students, “Why wait?”

It’s a good question. Why wait to tell the people that are important to us what they mean to us? So, for his speech class final exam, Mr. K asks his Oconomowoc High School (Wisconsin, U.S.A.) students have to publicly deliver a eulogy at the spacious and beautiful Oconomowoc Arts Center.

The assignment sheet reads:

EULOGY—This is a speech in which the speaker honors or praises an important person in their life with words befitting a person of such special significance.

  • Students will prepare a four minute informative speech.
  • Proper structure for an informative speech should be followed—Hook, Thesis—General Purpose and Specific Purpose, Body,Transitions, Clincher—etc.
  • For the speech, you should choose a person in your life that has influenced or changed you in a positive way and honor that person—THEN INVITE THEM TO THE EVENT! (You should try to select someone you can actually invite to the event—someone that will be able to hear your words live! It is also OK if you tape the speech and send them a copy! You may surprise them with the topic of the speech or prepare them in advance…either way—getting that speech to the person is part of your requirement! You may choose a person you know well—or a person you have only known for a little while. The main thing is—they must have made an impact on you in some very significant way. You should not be able to imagine your life, without them—or their memory—in it…

On Saturday, March 22, 2014, my family (Mom, Dad, Grandma, and kids: 13, 10 and 6) listened to 2.5 hours of eulogies, including that of our eldest, 15. It was riveting. The class was comprised of freshmen and sophomores, and the first speaker broke the ice. The young woman eulogized her mother and could not contain her tears while expressing her thankfulness. I stood in the back of the auditorium (having set up our camera to record my daughter’s speech), and had to snuffle back tears after watching students pour out their hearts—to fathers, mothers, friends, grandparents, youth leaders, et al.

I found myself thinking: “This is so great. The people we love really need to hear this. We should do this in church.” Having thought that, I should note that I’m one of those conservative Lutheran pastors who, following tradition, discourages “eulogizing” at funerals. We do this because funerals are to center on the Gospel, on Christ’s “good word” to us and through us. A funeral is, properly, about God at work. We discourage most eulogizing because such speaking in a funeral context ends up in waves of emotion that focus the attention on the speaker rather than on the God who speaks. (I’ve been to way too many funerals that stretch long because of very emotional speeches and what I hear said to the speakers afterwards is, “I can’t believe you actually got through that.” This is my point: funeral eulogizing typically turns attention from what God has to say to the speaker him or herself.)

The above being said, I keep thinking about how great it was for these kids to have the opportunity to say what they did and for their hearers to have the honor of hearing such words from their beloved. I think of one of my favorite movies, Waking Ned Devine, wherein one of the characters relishes the opportunity to deliver a eulogy to his best friend, who is sitting right in front of him (I won’t ruin the movie for you with the “How did this happen.”). And I find myself thinking about our church’s celebration of All Saints Day. At All Saints we remember the “faithful departed” from the previous year and we remember that the living, too, are “saints,” (Romans 1:7) part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) whom Christ has called to himself and who in worship are mystically drawn together (“with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.”).

I don’t know if people would do it, but I’m predisposed to try; that is, to put a little summary sheet together and give the people of my church an opportunity, between the services of All Saints Day, to thank God for the people who are important to them and tell them, to speak “good words” to the living in their presence. We are, after all, told in Christ “to encourage one another and build one another up.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) What I heard from my daughter was a great encouragement to me (she eulogized me, to my surprise) and found myself thinking about all the people to whom I would love the opportunity to say such things.

Perhaps in reading this you are thinking of someone to whom you would like to speak “good words.” Mr. Klubertanz is right. Why wait?


Here is the text (followed by the video recording) of my daughter’s eulogy, which she has graciously allowed me publish…

Siobhan O’Donnell

March 22, 2014

Dear Dad

Hello! My name is Siobhan O’Donnell, and I would like to dedicate this speech to my Daddy.

My father is a pastor. And I know that many of you think that pastors are always serious, well behaved, and boring. But I would like to tell you that this is NOT the case with my father. Although he is focused, serious, and passionate about his work, underneath lies a mischievous, fun-loving boy waiting to act.

When he was younger, he and his brother Shane were legendary for their pranks and jokes; many of which they played on each other and their younger sister Brooke. My favorite story of one of these pranks is this: At the time, my Aunt Brooke had a number of Cabbage Patch Dolls that she treasured dearly. While she was doing something in the other rooms of the house, the boys would go into her room and remove the screens from the windows. They would then press the dolls against the window, and put the wire screen back in place, causing the dolls to flatten. This created the appearance of a mangled, distorted doll, which would traumatize their younger sister. For retaliation, their mother, being wise to their ways, would team up with her daughter and completely toilet-paper the boys’ bedroom.

My Dad has always played an essential role in my life. He has always been there to cheer me up with his humor, teach me new things, and encourage and inspire me to be the best person I can be.

My father has always been able to make me laugh. He always seems to have the perfect thing to say or do. Recently, he has noticed that I will often use the word “like” while I speak or try to explain something. When he notices this during a conversation, he will then begin to copy me. His favorite things to say in such situations are “like, yeah” and “no way, that is totally, like, crazy”. And as many parents do, he has the need to copy the tone and facial expressions of a teenager while saying this, although he tends to over-exaggerate both. Nevertheless, this is always enough to cause my 6-year-old brother to break into giggles and bring a smile to all of our faces.

Every night since even before I was born, my family would sing a hymn and pray before tucking us in to bed. And ever since I have been able to speak, my dad has asked me this question before sending me to bed: “How much do I love you?” And I would then answer “Soooooo much!” After which my Dad would ask “And who loves you most of all?” Which I would then answer with “Jesus does”.

Now, watching him do the same with my younger siblings, I see a man whose first love is for his Lord, followed closely by his love for his family. Never in my life have I known a man more dedicated to his Lord and family. Here is a man full of love and life. Here is a man who changes lives because his life is touched by God. This is probably the most important lesson that my father has ever taught me. If my father were to leave us today, I am sure that this would be what he would want us to take away from his life: “Love unconditionally, work to be the best you can be, live the way God would have you live, pray for those who have done you wrong, never give up, and above all, trust and love God above all else.”

When my parents were married, my Dad chose this to be our family verse:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Hebrews 12:1-2

Daddy, although you lost your Dad at an early age, I pray that you will be here to cheer me on and help me in my race of faith. Someday, you will see me earn my license, graduate from high school, earn a degree in college, and move out on my own. Someday, you will walk me down the aisle on my wedding day, dance with me in the father-daughter dance, and hold your first grandchild in your arms. I look forward to the wonderful years and memories that I will have with you. Daddy, I will always be your little girl, and you will always be my Daddy. I love you soooooooo much.

Thank you.

Siobhan E. O’Donnell delivers a living eulogy to her father. 22 March 2014

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