“We are always saying farewell in this world — always standing at the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory; some human meaning, from the silence — something which is precious and gone.”
–Adlai Stevenson in his eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt
Eventually, in the course of our lives, we will be standing at that precipice — paralyzed by the agony of heartbreak and the crushing sense of loss. During that initial shock of grief, we are at a loss for words, but paradoxically, we turn to words for solace, for healing, and for meaning. Far too many eulogies are hastily cobbled together — a patchwork of anecdotes, inside jokes, and the expression of raw emotion; and, given the circumstances, it is understandable. However, a eulogy that is carefully and thoughtfully considered and lovingly written, as a tribute to a loved one, is infinitely better than an impromptu speech, no mattered how well-intentioned the speaker. “A great eulogy,” writes Cyrus Copeland, “is both art and architecture — a bridge between the living and the dead, memory, and eternity… [Great eulogies] survive by the sheer force of their beauty. There is something timeless about a well-worded goodbye.”
Copeland, author of Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, is absolutely right. A eulogy should be approached with great reverence and appreciation that it truly is an art form; it demands the speaker/writer to rise to the level of a solemn occasion that marks the end of someone’s journey on this planet. As Kevin Young notes, “In a way, the process of grief can mirror that of writing: it is surprising, trying, frustrating, daunting, terrifying, comforting… grief can provide fellowship with others… it brings out the best in us, and at times the worst, if only because it is so utterly human.” The hope, of course, is that the memory of a loved one brings out the best in us; that we rise to the task before us: to write an eloquent eulogy that is the final expression of love, the chance to say goodbye, recall fond memories of a life, but most importantly, to express one’s admiration and gratitude.
Below are some of the best books on eulogies to inspire and provide some level of solace and fellowship for those who are grieving and searching for the right words to honor a loved one.
Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time by Cyrus Copeland, Harmony Books (2003)
Copeland has carefully selected 64 of the best eulogies written about notable people, like entertainers, authors, statesmen, and philanthropists. Each eulogy is followed by notes that place the life of the person eulogized in historical context.
A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit by Cyrus Copeland, Algonquin Books (2006)
Copeland’s followup book to his first book. This book includes 50 new moving and eloquent eulogies.
The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing edited by Kevin Young, Bloomsbury (2010)
Kevin Young, a poet and Professor of English and Creative Writing, has selected 150 modern elegies. The poems are arranged to correspond to the grieving process developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: reckoning, regret, remembrance, ritual, recovery, and redemption.
Poems of Mourning edited by Peter Washington, Knopf (1998)
This is a volume in the excellent, and very successful, collection of poetry in the Everyman Library Pocket Poets series. Washington has selected more than 150 poems, both old and new, that express the many moods and forms of mourning.
Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions edited by Geoffrey O’Brien, Little Brown (2004)
In this 510-page volume, O’Brien has collected some of the best poems, not just for death and mourning, but for every major occasion in life. The book is organized into five themes: the cycles of nature, round the year, the cycles of life, the human condition, public moments and ultimate matters — representing poets from every century.
Remembrances and Celebrations: A Book of Eulogies, Elegies, Letters, and Epitaphs edited by Jill Harris, Pantheon (1999)
This unique volume is divided into four sections, that reflect the four time-honored rituals: eulogies, elegies, letters, and epitaphs.