One of my dearest friends lost his partner of many years just recently. I sat with him and his family through many difficult hours over the course of an illness that eventually won the battle. Nearly everyone reading this has been in that same place. Likewise, you have stood beside that dear friend in a peaceful, grassy cemetery as the final moments of formal grieving drew to a close.
I listened carefully as the speakers unfolded the essence of that fine woman — not just accomplishments — but who she was to each of us. That is the art of a eulogy, I suppose. Making each one know that you saw the person deep down and understood her.
I don’t worry much about birthdays and never have. Sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, thirty, forty, and fifty didn’t really mean much to me. This summer I turned sixty and I still feel the same, but as I have reached this place, nearing forty years at my job, and thinking often about retirement, I think this may all come together to cause me to think about my own mortality.
So this is the context that causes me to wonder what might be said of me when I’m the one for whom others are gathered in some peaceful cemetery.
My vita is many pages long. One might list my accomplishments in my profession. I’ve written over a dozen books, hundreds of articles, and been published all over the world. But that wouldn’t really mean much — quite frankly — to anyone listening. Who cares what audiences I’ve addressed, television shows I’ve been on, or who I knew? If you live long enough you are bound to accomplish something, even by accident.
I don’t want the speaker to fill blanks in a generic eulogy with specifics that would be forgotten as soon as the echo of the words faded away. He played (fill in instruments), and achieved (fill in awards), and was (fill in something a lot of people wouldn’t know that might make their eyebrows go up). Those things, too, will be forgotten before that day is over.
“He was a good dad,” would be nice, but that is easy to say even by one who didn’t know me and even if it weren’t true. While that is very important to me, is that who I am at the heart?
“He made people laugh,” would also be nice. I have loved humor since childhood. My father telling a joke or doing something funny when I was just a tot made me want to be able to do that, too. But, again, that might make people smile and remember something funny — not a bad tool for a eulogy — but is that really me?
Undoubtedly, I’m not the only one who thinks these thoughts. Perhaps you too, have wondered how people see you. It is a very human thing to do. We are social creatures — even the most introverted of us like me. We see ourselves as a reflection in the eyes of others and that matters.
My clients often are struggling with their identity because they don’t know where they fit in the eyes of their parents, their spouses, or their friends. And yes, sometimes even the reflection of self in the eyes of strangers can be either healing or life-shattering. We want to be accepted and we want to make a difference in life.
So I guess what I finally realized is that my eulogy — to the pleasure of anyone in attendance — could be just one sentence. The official could stand up to the dais, everyone settling into their chairs and bracing against the heat or the cold, whichever it might be. And they would be shocked that it was over so fast. No music. No crying. No sappy stories. The only requirement is that the official would have to be someone believable — someone who knew me well.
And he or she could deliver a line short enough to present without notes. “Whether it was his friends, his students, his clients, his readers, his children, his wife, or even strangers — he wanted with all his heart to make lives better for everyone he met.”
As Duke says in the opening lines of “The Notebook,” “No monuments will be erected to me and my name will soon be forgotten.” It’s true, you know. But if the speaker were sincere and the hearers were believing, that one line would be enough for me.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]