Writing our own eulogies is an effective technique for reminding us that our lives are our legacies and that both our lives and our legacies are in perpetual development.
The exercise of eulogy writing allows us to tell our story in a way that will hopefully make us proud of the life we have lived to date, or at least make our decisions understandable and our choices comprehensible, if only to ourselves.
In trying to encapsulate our story we might find our legacy wanting.
We might be compelled to forge the material for a new eulogy.
We might even decide to change our lives.
“The creative exercise of writing your own eulogy was popularized by Daniel Harkavy, the author of Living Forward. It has now been used by thousands of executives around the world as a way to make sense of their lives and to plan their next personal and professional steps.”
As Harkavy explains: “When we take the time to write our eulogies, it creates this magnetic pull power that draws us forward, our priorities and our vision for where we want to be as leaders and how we’ll get there come into sharp focus. This clarity enables us to make the best decisions, get up out of our comfortable patterns, create new habits, and start moving us toward a better future.”
It usually produces a profound impact and can create “a sense of urgency and clarity.” And, as “Steve Jobs said, ‘only the big choices remain meaningful in the face of death. Small embarrassing moments, things that didn’t go exactly as planned, missed dinner parties—all of these fade away, only leaving the big picture and the important decisions.’”
I was once tasked with writing my own eulogy for a company I worked for in my twenties. It was an exercise to encourage us not only evaluate our lives, if we were doing what mattered most to us, but also likely to exercise our possible discomfort with our own mortality. I wish I remembered what I wrote. What I do remember was that it talked about how much I loved the people in my life. That’s always been what matters most to me. It was less about any accomplishment or life lesson and simply about honouring the great life I had the privilege of living and the people I cherished. And honestly today, some 15 years later, not much has changed. Sure there are accomplishments I’ve reached along the way (many I’m quite proud of) and the thing that still remains the most important to me is my relationships. It’s what I’m most proud of and what I think living is actually all about anyway.
In case you’re thinking about what yours might include and want to take a stab at writing one (or perhaps even reflecting a bit), we wanted to share a few ideas in this post.
Conventional eulogies typically have three sections:
- Beginning: introduces you on your own terms (it could be solemn, humorous or any point in-between). As the saying goes, “it’s your funeral!”
- Middle: covers some life events, usually in chronological order (this could be reference to childhood, adult life (work/family) and later life)
- End: tries to sum things up, which can often feel difficult to feel sum up a life. Maybe this is about what you’ve learned from your time on earth, or a mention of those you’re leaving behind. It’s common for this to induce a moment of reflection.
How to go about the actual writing:
This can definitely feel like the more daunting task, so perhaps these reflection questions may help:
- Where were you born?
- What’s the tone?
- Who will hear it?
- What’s the focus? Life story? Accomplishments? Personal stories?
- How can you bring the qualities of your personality to life?
- What ways can this (eulogy) be differentiated from the obituary?
- What can you say that might provide a bit of comfort?
- Is there a poem, a quote, or a song you want to share?
While there’s the option of writing a chronological eulogy, which goes “through each of your accomplishments and important steps in your life—it can be more powerful to go about it finding common themes weaving a red thread in the narrative of your life.” There is by no means one way to write a eulogy or one comprehensive guide, though answering these questions may support drafting an outline.
The below has been summarized from his post:
- Where were you born?
- Any interesting anecdotes about your childhood, or aspects of your culture that shaped you?
- Where did you go to school?
- Did you ever go back to school?
- Were you self-taught? What did you study?
- What kind of student were you?
- From childhood to retirement, where did you live?
- Did you stay put or did you explore the world?
- What kind of places did you enjoy most?
- What did you do for work?
- What kind of teammate were you?
- Did you stay at the same company, or did you work at various places?
- Did you start a company? If so, how did it go?
- Did you win any awards for your work?
- Did you have a small or a large group of friends?
- Did you ever get married?
- Did you have kids?
- What kind of relationship did you have with them?
- Were you often in touch with your family?
- Did you have any side projects?
- Hobbies you enjoyed outside of work?
- Were these solo hobbies or did you invite friends or family to join you?
- Any noteworthy accomplishments?
- What did people admire the most about you?
- What did they enjoy the most when spending time with you?
- What were some compliments you often received?
- What are some times you helped people in a way they will remember?
- What will people miss the most about you?
And truly, it really comes down to what matters most to you?
- What do you value most in life?
- What’s most meaningful to you?
- What do you cherish?
- What’s sacred?
- What gives you purpose?
- What brings you unbridled joy?
While these are big questions, they’re also the ones that matter most… and the ones that likely also make a good life (which means something different and unique to each of us).
A great example of approaching these things in a possibly unconventional way comes from Nora McInerny who co-wrote, with her husband, his obituary.
Here’s the story:
On November 11, 2014, my husband Aaron entered hospice care after three years of treatment for stage IV glioblastoma (a fancy way of saying brain cancer). A few weeks prior, I’d written my dad’s obituary with my three siblings, and we’d laboured over every word. Our father, who had made his living writing infomercials, would have been able to write it in ten minutes flat, but tasked with the job of summarizing his life for him? We choked.
I didn’t want to summarize Aaron’s life for him. I didn’t want to wonder what he’d say or how he’d say it. So, I asked him an agonizing question: will you write this with me? He said yes. I typed. He talked. We laughed. We sobbed. And when it was done, I snapped my laptop shut and turned on Game of Thrones.
Aaron’s obituary went viral. This was 2014 when there were only a few viral stories a week, not a few every minute. People around the world were reading it and sharing it, and one of those people was a literary agent who emailed me to say she was so sorry for my loss, and that she had loved Aaron’s obituary.
To read Aaron’s full obituary, click here.
What Do You Want Said About You When You Die?
And so, while for some this may feel like a morbid or even upsetting consideration, for others still it may induce the kind of reflection or life evaluation that serves. As with anything, take what makes sense for you and leave the rest. This is simply one way to approach an inevitability none of us will avoid.
For additional resources and to learn more, visit us at eirene.ca.