Put in a good word
If a eulogy sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Putting on rose-colored glasses to look at a loved one’s life, however, might be just what we need for resolution.
Recently I attended the wake and funeral for the father of a friend. At the wake, the children—now all middle-aged—took turns talking about their dad. They spoke with affection about his love for their mother and his devout faith.
One son took pride in his father’s strict discipline. Another entertained us with stories of Dad’s temper, including one in which he chased a miscreant child through the house and into his room. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t see the chin-up bar in the bedroom doorway. The son, diving under the bed, cleared it easily. Dad didn’t. The siblings commiserated on the consequences of that bump on the head; the rest of us were left to imagine.
In the relatively informal setting of the wake, these adult children talked about a dad whom they truly loved. The accumulation of their stories, told from individual perspectives and filtered through their attendant biases and agendas, described a real-life human being with virtues and flaws. Not all deceased are depicted so three-dimensionally.
I’ve found myself attending many funerals over the past decade or so. As you grow up, they don’t tell you much about reaching middle age, and this definitely isn’t in the brochure. I have come away with mixed emotions about the eulogies at these funerals and wakes.
There’s something democratizing about eulogies. The great and powerful always have them, but so can the quiet and humble. Anyone can get their 15 minutes, and the meek can momentarily inherit the microphone.
I enjoy learning more about the deceased from the eulogy. He may have liked to take his wife dancing on weekends. She may have been the first female college graduate in her family. These tidbits help flesh out people who, in life, I may have known only through a certain lens—only as my buddy’s dad or only as a client.
Eulogies can also evoke a second complex set of reactions. So often the eulogist tells us that we’re burying a wonderful person who’d done wonderful things in life, whose compassion, faith, and wisdom were extraordinary. We hear of the world’s greatest fathers, mothers who showed their daughters how to find happiness in the simplest things, and selfless friends who were always there with a shoulder to cry on or to push a stalled vehicle.
I find myself envying these people’s loss, regretting that I didn’t know the deceased better and don’t know someone like him now. Another missed opportunity in my life. Before long, however, envy bleeds into inferiority. It’s bad enough that I don’t know people like the deceased—worse, I am not like her.
Like most people, I assume, I sometimes listen to eulogies and wonder what they’ll say about me when I’m gone. So far, I know I haven’t lived up to the eulogies I’ve heard. I’m neither the perfect husband or father. I haven’t done the spectacular or given life-changing counsel. I spend much of the time during eulogies reflecting on my failings, the instances when I could have done better or when I just plain didn’t do enough. Eulogies are a great opportunity to examine one’s conscience and resolve to live better.
Human nature is persistent, and in due time I begin to wonder if there’s not more—or less—than meets the ear. The cynic in me wonders why, if so many saints have walked among us, there is so much misery in the world. Then, through post-funeral conversations with the cynic in others, I learn that not all is as it seems.
The eulogist left out some less saintly aspects of the deceased’s life. The relationship between the deceased and the eulogist wasn’t always as the talk implied. The eulogist left out drinking problems, emotional distance, stubbornness, greed, or other sins of mere mortals. Instead, the eulogist has told us the story that he or she wants us to believe about the deceased or about their relationship. Learning that some eulogies may be less than the full story puts the world back in balance.
But I think something else is going on. Yes, the eulogist might be giving her spin on things, but that spin has a purpose—which may be at such a level of consciousness that the eulogist doesn’t even recognize it.
It seems to be the exception rather than the rule that loved ones can resolve some conflicts before death. Whether it’s because of physical or some other kind of distance, many of us can’t visit a dying loved one in time to have a heart-to-heart, or if we can make the visit, it’s hard to muster up the courage for the necessary conversation. For some, the eulogy can provide resolution.
In life, the eulogist and deceased may have been out of sorts. She may have disappointed him, or he may have wounded her. But given the choice between doing nothing or something, she’s taking a step. By telling the story in glowing terms, she presents the deceased in a way that perhaps neither he nor anyone else would think he deserves.
It’s not just a story she wants us to believe; she wants to believe it, too. She’s forgiving him, and in the same way, in the same language, she’s asking forgiveness. I believe that some eulogies complete a transaction that perhaps never started when it should have, but at least it’s starting now.
This might have happened in the story told at the wake of the dad who got beaned by the chin-up bar. Just because it got a laugh and didn’t idealize the father doesn’t mean there wasn’t an olive branch of sorts in there. Maybe that’s why the speaker left out the part about his punishment.
Sometimes, I think, the mere act of eulogizing—the getting up and speaking the words—is an attempt to make things right. In the same way that the act of confessing—speaking sins out loud—helps unburden the soul, the eulogy may be the good faith act on this side of the exchange. And if framing it with humor makes it easier to do, so be it.
So maybe the eulogy isn’t fully accurate, maybe the embellished story serves a purpose other than just providing information, but something important is happening. For those of us in the pews, if we can listen more with our heart, maybe we can evaluate and repair our own lives, and maybe we can revisit our own relationships before we’re asked to deliver a eulogy.
This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 10, page 37-38).