Warning: the following article contains spoilers for Succession season four.
“He kept everyone outside, but when he let you in and the sun shone … it was warm in the light.” So says Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) in Succession’s penultimate episode, Church and State. The life of oligarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), is presented through three eulogies – each of which channels some of the trials of summing up a life, while facing a crowd.
Roman (Kieran Culkin), Logan’s youngest son, is overwhelmed by his emotions and cannot go on. Logan’s estranged brother, Ewan (James Cromwell) and Roman’s siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Shiv meanwhile, give meaningful and honest, if sometimes brutal appraisals of the man Shiv describes as her “dear, dear world of a father”.
I run a range of creative writing workshops. Here are my top tips for writing a memorable eulogy, inspired by the Roy family.
1. Consider your structure
Begin with something bold to grab the audience’s attention. In Succession, Ewan opens with the childhood story of how he and Logan came to the US aboard a ship during the second world war. The engines had “let go” and they were told that if they spoke or even coughed, they would die right there in the hold.
This important detail gives the funeral attendees an insight into some of the choices Logan made later on in life.
Think about what story it is you want to tell about your loved one, how you want it to end and what you want your audience to take home. Many writers find it helpful to start with the ending and work backwards.
Like any piece of writing, you are creating a narrative through your eulogy. Write a short opening, perhaps using a quote, and don’t bore the audience with too much unnecessary detail, unless you link it to an event that provides insight into how they lived their life.
Weave your middle section with information that builds the eulogy, but has a clear stopping point, so listeners can be moved by your ending. Then end with the essence of what you want them to remember about the person. Or repeat the quote from the beginning.
2. Tips, tricks and techniques
I teach creative writing workshops where students explore the tips, tricks and techniques of their favourite writer. I suggest that they try to link biographical detail with the themes that dominate the writer’s work. For example, Tolkien’s traumatic experiences in the first world war are seen by many as a key influence on his fantasy series, The Lord of The Rings. This is something his biographers have picked up on to explain the intertwining of his life and his work.
This can be applied to writing eulogies. Like Ewan, use biographical detail to build a portrait of the person you are remembering. Follow the rule of all great writing and remember to “show not tell”. This means your eulogy should include anecdotes that offer a sense of the person you’re talking about, rather than just providing a series of facts about them.
3. Overcoming emotion
Having written the eulogies for both my parents and a family friend, I know first hand that both the writing and delivering of a eulogy can be emotionally overwhelming. Build this into your preparation.
It’s a good idea to have somebody standing by to read your eulogy out just in case, like Roman, you find you can’t go on. Remember that it’s fine to take a breath and wait until you are ready to continue.
Writing a eulogy can be a helpful part of the grieving process, even if it feels like an intimidating responsibility to do justice to a person’s life in a single piece of writing. The creative process can become a tool for expressing your feelings, potentially offering new insights and clarification.
4. Don’t be afraid to laugh
I find using humour helps provide light and shade. Having the courage to talk about the difficult, funny and downright embarrassing moments will humanise your eulogy – and laughter can help bring grieving people together.
But don’t be afraid to get serious either. There is no blueprint for the perfect eulogy, but all writing is elevated when the truth emerges, however dark. Kendall’s eulogy combined these elements of light and shade brilliantly.
5. If in doubt, borrow
If you just can’t find the right words to express how you feel, borrow them from someone else. Screenwriter Richard Curtis did this memorably in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) with WH Auden’s moving poem, Funeral Blues.
One of my favourite frequent eulogy inclusions is the poem Like Jewels in My Hand, written by my late aunt, the novelist Sasha Moorsom.
I’m not afraid they will misunderstand
My turning to them like a magic charm
I hold dead friends like jewels in my hand
Turquoise and emerald, jade, a golden band.
It offers some sage advice on writing eulogies as well as remembering lost loved ones.