- it's often a woman who'll speak up. There's a reason for that. There's a reason why women may have a (slightly) better way with those very special words -
- but let's cover the basics first.
As a specialism, eulogies are something of a niche. From my point of view, I'm a speechwriter as well as a copywriter so a eulogy is (and you'll find I'm pretty blunt, here), a eulogy is a piece of work much like any other. Except ~ the eulogies I write aren't what you'd call run of the mill. Plus, I have something of a moribund fascination for the distilled minutiae of rhetoric; for the metaphors and the vocabulary and the words we use to, well, to 'handle' death, I guess.
Life, too, but the language of death is interesting, n'est pas?
The eulogies I write have been ~ avant-garde. They are incredibly varied. I expect they'll always be discreet and, usually, they're composed in sensitive circumstances: they're what you might call high profile - or low. It depends on your perspective. However, they all have one thing in common: they're written by a woman and - although my male counterparts may 'tut' disapprovingly in my direction - I believe that does make a difference for my clients.
The language of the living
In life, words come naturally to most people. In most cases, a writer's skill comes to the fore when language needs to be used as a tool: it is definitely a means to an end.
In death, however, or in the funeral industry at least, the end of each client's project is pretty well nigh almost as soon as it begins. (By the way, if you're offended by wry humour, it's probably best to quit while you're ahead.)
Within the funeral industry, everyone finds their own way of articulating themselves with clients, be they dead or alive (that's the clients, obviously)(though I've met a few dodgy speechwriters in my time, too).
This is not a comfortable subject. People handle things in different ways.
There's a need to be sensitive while we're also being pragmatic: you're unlikely to find funeral directors talking about touch-ups to a corpse in polite circles. They will, however, mention the need to prepare a body, while they're discussing a bill - it's the same thing, I'm sorry but it is.
When death becomes us we talk in code. We use metaphors; we use gentle euphemisms; we do not joke about the whispering pass of a scythe. Why? Because most people do not have a grasp of the corpus for corpses - the body of language that's used every day for bodies and for burial.
Morbid humour may assuage our own needs when the time comes but when you're pitching for a speech-gig and there's a body already in a box, gags about deadlines or death sentences aren't funny (ask me not how I know this).
So. Here are my thoughts on how, and why, we find ourselves in this situation at all: dealing or not dealing with the corpus of corpses, and as a result, scrabbling for people like me - your lowly, jobbing eulogy/speechwriter - trying to help people who are, quite simply, lost for words.
Let us start with a story: Once upon a time, Neanderthal Man brought a fine brace of dead rabbits back to the cave. "Ug! Ug, ug!", he said, unloading the two dead bunnies and scratching his nether regions in an alluring (if slightly ambitious) manner.
Neanderthal Woman sighed heavily, prodded the fire a bit, and replied, "That's lovely dear, but I don't think they'll feed us for a week now, will they?”
When Neanderthal Man and Woman died, nobody laid them to rest. There were no metaphorical buckets for them to kick. One day, "Ug!" meant 'alive'. The next day, "Ug, Ug-Ug!" meant - dead. Fast-forward to the middle ages and the complexities of ugging had evolved, but the demise of a King was confirmed by the same word used to describe the passing of a pauper. Dead, is dead, is dead.
From this point on though, social class started to divide us. And where class goes, language usually follows - even though the unpredictability of death and an inability to articulate the unknown starts to unite us.
It is not a coincidence that 'community' and ‘communication’ come from the same etymological source, meaning ‘to share’.
[Incidentally, that other great unknown must get a mention here too: Religion. If it weren't for men of the cloth wanting to stem the flow of power and knowledge via divine right and religion, there’d have been no printing press or desire for education and better communication at all. Discuss.]
Eventually, education developed in the written form. We saw it in the arts, in music and culture; romanticism, eroticism - the language of lurve - all forms of sex and sensuality. Expressionism, individualism, equality. Politics. Medicine. Industry, revolution, futurology – yes, even in transhumanism, language plays its parts.
These concepts are encapsulated so easily in just one written word, but they all depend on our ability to use language and to articulate thought effectively. Today, we are formulaic by default. We adopt taxonomies. Seeking approval, we conform to defined language systems for science, religion, culture and technology.
Some might say the entire dying process has thus been better brought to life. I say that our thirst for knowledge makes us aware of the enormity and inevitability of death, but there is a drought of language and effective communication about the subject in all regards and - please - do not get me started on the communications disaster that's promulgating the sale of funeral plans - I'll just tie that hobby horse up here, shall I? Okay. Now then, where was I - ah yes, death, and being divisive.
We know death now. We've had two World Wars. Plauge, famine, and celebrity culture. We understand that disease exists and it is not a punishment for life. We have seen death memorialised in Mort d’Arthur, we have mocked it – gently – in the great Pratchett’s Mort.
We still see le mort as a threat to unity, rather than an inexplicable and yet accepted transition within our own community, but, as is the nature of an individualist society, we have begun to demand that it becomes us with diversity. And as such, good writers should be capable of helping people to explore their end-of-life options and express their grief more effectively as a very personal occasion. But here's the thing:
Our words for death, limit us in life.
Language is a strange thing. It is only thanks to language that we have self-consciousness. Thought begets words. Words beget humanity. Humans are quite conscious of death, but death destroys that conscious self – and yes, this is a philosophical position that can eat you up from the inside out if you let it, because it points to the moebian cycle of humanity using words to express its vulnerability – but it's those self-same words representing weakness that makes us human in the first place.
In the words of an inimitable man, Douglas J. Davies, we do need to commemorate life but we find it hard to choose and then use the right 'words against death'.
We are limited by the words, the vocabulary, the lexicon – the gamut or number of words we know and their meaning – and as for oracy? Speaking in public? This is rarely taught in our curriculum anymore, which is a travesty in every sense.
The absence of this fundamental skill is as much a barrier for funerary professionals as it is for the people they try to help. People do not pursue the art of rhetoric or public speaking. Sadly, as a result, eulogising has become an 'amateur sport'.
We are better than this, dammit. Everyone should be equipped to choose and orate those all-important 'words against death'. The Edwardians? Loved public speaking. The Victorians? Excellent at it.
Come the 1930s or even 40s, our upper classes were still learning about epizeuxis but unless you went to a damned fine school in post-war Britain, you had little exposure to ethos, pathos, and logos, by Jove!
Our education system has let us down.
Today, less than 4% of British secondary education exams involve the spoken word as a measured form of communication, and the Office for National Statistics tells us 5.2 million adults in Britain have the reading age of an 11-year old. This is the result of changes to the national curriculum and – how may I put this delicately – the complete ineptitude of teachers who do not get students to pay attention and make an effort by engaging them appropriately.
Let's put that functional illiteracy into context, for that is what it is. It's the population of Wales and Birmingham who are struggling to read and write in an everyday situation. (Or, for American friends, that’s Birmingham, Alabama and Alabama.) That’s a lot of people who simply don't do words very well – at work, rest, or play – and an entire society is being dragged backwards as a consequence.
Some words, we handle better than others. Irrespective of our education, creed, sex, or religion. The lyrics of songs have enduring appeal, whoever's singing them. In life, thanks to cadence or contextual form, sung verses are relatively easy to remember.
To describe art – our interpretation of ars morendi and those silent, inner voices we use to absorb or qualify its impact or intensity – well, those words come easily to our mind's ear even if we cannot, then, simply orate what is in the mind's eye. Poetry also gives us an accessible 'soundtrack', spoken or voiced, to engage with emotion without tapping into conscious thought.
Who does not tremble when they hear 'Stop all the clocks'...
From the mid-1800s, we have often reverted to type to help us cope with the problem of death: we rage, we rage against the dying of the light. We have works by writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens – even Rosetti – and it's these narratives that fuel the public's fascination with death and provide a framework of language that people can still refer to. However, when you think about it, unless poetry or medicine is involved, the language of death is comparatively concise - and this is bizarre.
Most people are, at heart, Egyptocuriothanatologists.
People are fascinated by the subject of death but, even if they're curious to know more about death and dying, they are mostly in denial . The natural, everyday rhetoric of bereavement eludes us, and that is why people find it so hard to write a eulogy or, indeed, to deliver such a speech in public.
People do not want to talk about death. What's more, people marking death with a eulogy may not have heard of Poe or Dickens, or Grip for that matter - Poe's Raven.
Our exposure to good language and great oratory has been diluted at school. The funerary language model we need does not exist in life, per se. Or, if it does, then a die-hard industry is obfuscating its potential to help people cope with their grief, naturally.
In Britain, at the moment, the average, adult, non-self-starting, non-academic has a vocabulary of somewhere around 35,000 words – and within that number, they include such literary gems as shaggadelic. And lolz. And amazeballs.
It is little wonder that, at the very time we want to express ourselves best, many people are quite simply lost for words - and I include those who work within or for the funeral industry. Catch 22.
Most of us quietly accept that death is inevitable, but we us are ill-equipped to talk about it. When you think about the regression we're seeing in the standards of our education, however, it is clearly not entirely our fault.
We have reserved a lexicon for funerary rites, it's true. We've also adopted some common language to help us deal with difficult situations ... have you noticed, much of the vocabulary orating terminal illness involves physical resistance? Being brave; battling; waging a war on disease, or losing - winning - the fight against cancer.
In expressing sorrow and loss, a large percentage of the population find themselves ill-equipped to eulogise naturally. They are not prosaic. They’re not poets. They aren’t great writers, they aren’t natural speakers either.
In fact, there are very few professional eulogy writers on hand at all. Far fewer, are the individuals who'll sneer at a template and, instead, write a unique eulogy for the situation in hand; writing for three distinct audiences - the person who has died, the person who'll be delivering the speech, and the people hearing or reading those words at any time.
Eulogy-writing, in itself, is a dying art - and here's the strangest thing:
I believe there's a reason why female eulogy writers have a competitive edge over their male counterparts.
It's called female intuition. A eulogy should be comforting. Pagans, pedants, Presbyterians – everyone benefits when well-written words re-affirm positive opinions and the endearing memories of a person who has died. A eulogy may be profound; sad; satirical; reassuring; topical; biographical or truly hysterical. But in every case, female intuition is influential - essential, even - to the collation, presentation, and then acceptance of 'small truths' about a person’s life. The pain we feel when confronted with life's ultimate flaw – death – is amplified by the severity and number of those weaknesses. There are many things that we may choose not to say or remember.
It is hard to find the right words for the small truths of a life’s imperfections.
Eulogy writers help people to express their grief, to mark a death, and to unite people in the restorative sharing of memories. We try to provide all the good words for that great occasion - the best words, in fact - and this, this is where women can have an edge.
Women see things differently. It's a proven fact (don't ask me for footnotes because it's buried deep in a pile of papers under my desk); women are also better at recognising subtle facial expressions than men. Feminists, roll your sleeves down; word-people, stick with me: this is not narcissism. Some women do have a way with words – I would suggest women are far more likely than men to think about what they say before the words come tumbling out of their mouths – and women do know how to speak to more than one audience at the same time. Female intuition is hard to analyse, but it is an accepted trait of the human species and one that should never be underestimated.
Women ... talk.
I know, I know; we've only have had the vote for 100 years. Outrageous, right? But 200 years ago, many women felt unable to speak out or to write at all, let alone to write a tick in a box. Think about the Brontë sisters, writing under the name of Bell. Or Mary-Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot. Thank heavens things have changed, eh? I mean, it's not as if Joanne Rowling’s publisher asked her to use initials instead of her first name so that she’d appear genderless to her audience...
The average 11-year-old boy or girl can just about manage Harry Potter, and I make that gender distinction at this point because progress in reading ability is a variable beyond that age - but I digress. Let's get back on track. Imagine this:
How would you go about writing a eulogy for Uncle Maxine?
Max has asked to be buried in his best dress: he’d not long ago decided he was happier being known as Maxine. His wife – she’ll be in the front row, she’s paying for the funeral and your services as a speechwriter – well now, she had no idea at all about this fashion statement being a possibility, even though everyone else had known for ages (including Maxine’s boyfriend, who'll be sitting behind Max’s wife in full drag).
You think this is funny? Names may have been changed to protect the bemused but I thought my client (Maxine’s son), was having a right laugh. He could see the humour in the situation, but, he said, "I couldn't have talked about this with a man, I don't know why - I just couldn't."
Instead, he said, he needed to establish a degree of empathy with the situation before he could even think about briefing a eulogy, and he was convinced, therefore, that the only writer who'd achieve the right outcome – would be a woman.
Finding the right words to tell the funeral director what you’d like to happen to Aunt Maxine’s body must have been difficult. Writing a five-minute speech that did justice to Uncle Max’s whole life was - a toughie. However:
Women have an innate ability to think sideways.
You know this is true: when a woman says, "Did you move the big saucepan, dear?", you know there's something cooking, and it's probably not your tea. In my experience, women are more able to use language laterally, as well.
Instead of incorporating ecclesiastical texts, for example, I once asked a young man's family if they'd like the eulogy written as though it was a series of SMS messages: it was truly appropriate. I’ve also written eulogies for pets – and why not? People are often more comfortable when they're memorialising animals than they are when they're remembering humans. We are such awkward and imperfect creatures, after all.
Mind you, I’ve also been given a first draft that I can only describe as a poetic lament (loudly lamenting the absence of a Last Will and Testament), and yes, I have had to reframe death threats. The family concerned was dealing with very traumatic and unexpected circumstances. It came through in their notes.
And women know, sometimes silence is everything.
The sound of silence is powerful. Useful, too. With no small amount of irony, my work as a eulogy writer is a failure if anyone realises I've been involved: my aim is to capture a speaker's tone of voice so well that he or she still feels the pen in their hands – but even I'll admit that I had to think creatively when (a well-known) person confided she'd never learned to read and her work in film has been captured 'in short takes', to date.
These are not uncommon situations. Thankfully, as a woman, I've had no qualms about manning up to these challenges - crikey, language is a bugger isn't it - and actually, I don't mind being invisible in my work (although I tend not to say 'ghostwriter' when I'm describing what I do. You can see why, I hope?).
Poking his fire, bemoaning the lack of easy-to-catch rabbits in the neighbourhood, Mr Ug was a wee bit phonetically challenged. Mr Ug Esquire, however, has made great progress – and I am not talking about his foray into dubious footwear.
In life, today, we seek out good communicators. We like talking to people who find answers to the toughest questions - questions about profound ideas such as life; politics; and whether it's jam or cream that goes on first.
Benjamin Franklin was concise in his choice of words when he said there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. (He must have had a pretty shoddy accountant.) I prefer to think the only sure things in life are birth and death – everything in between is pretty much up for grabs, as are the words with which we encapsulate those myriad experiences.
Almost every culture reflects and rejoices in the miracle of birth. Although they may mark the occasion in different ways, most cultures revere, record, and remain in awe at the mysteries of death. How they do it, is unique to their culture; how we interpret that ceremony is ubiquitously influenced by the language available to ours.
People do find it hard to talk about death and dying. Not only because they are handling the emotions of grief and loss - but also because they have a limited vocabulary and, in the main, have had little or no exposure to rhetoric or the art of writing for public speaking. My greatest concern? It's this: we are in danger of seeing the good eulogy disappear along with the art of public speaking and yes, I do get rather excited about this subject, as I do about many aspects of language and speech.
However a man dies, whatever his beliefs are of what comes next, his death occurs in an instant but les bon mots about his life may live forever.
Many good writers have told me that sex is irrelevant. I believe they're all wrong - insert your own joke here - but, gender aside, time is short, and it is never too soon to put the importance of a good eulogy into words.