Apr 8 / Brian McCarthy

Funeral Speeches — a simple structure to help you convey feelings, meaning and values.

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This is a strange article to write. I considered not writing it, but then thought that actually there are people, too many people, that might need some advice at this terrible time we are living, with so many deaths.

I don’t really expect someone who has to make a funeral speech to search online for help on preparing it. And rightly so, preparing such a speech is extremely personal responsibility, where you will search inside yourself, your heart and your memories for the feelings and then the words to describe them. The thought of looking online for advice might feel like you are cheapening or not paying respect to this most serious of tasks. This is something that a best man does to prepare his speech for a wedding, not what one does to prepare a funeral speech. When I prepared my speech for my father’s funeral many years ago, I did not want to read anything about how to prepare my speech.

So, this advice that I want to give to you today is for the brothers, sisters, husbands wives and best friends who might be asked by the speaker for their thoughts on the speech before it is delivered. In my preparation for my the speech at my Dad’s funeral I got great help from my brother Sean.

My aim here is give some simple and proven advice on how to structure your speech. Many times content, our ideas, struggles to find a structure that does it justice. Structure will help you clarify your thoughts, and will help the audience understand and feel what you want to convey.

In all speeches, the speaker should be addressing a need of the audience. In the case of a funeral, the audience needs someone to put words on the feelings of the occasion. To make sense of it. We all have feelings at such occasions, and those feelings will vary in kind and in intensity from person to person. The problem is that we are not all very good at putting words to our own feelings or to the feeling of the entire group. And that is why we look to the speaker to articulate those feelings for us and, perhaps less obvious, to highlight the shared values of the community.

I’m going to use two speeches from the same funeral to talk about some of the particular aspects of both structure and delivery that might be helpful to into account as you prepare this difficult speech. The funeral is that of Senator John McCain and the two funeral speeches I’ve chosen to use as examples were those by Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Openings — why we are here and what we are feeling.

When opening any ceremonial speech the simplest and best way to open is with the traditional “Today we are here to……..”. The goal here is to gather the audience under the same “emotional umbrella.” It is important to start with “we”, as with the speech your aim to speak for everyone present. Your job is to identify the emotional state of the audience and put words to it.

Look at how Obama and Bush open their speeches:

We are here to:
Obama: We come to celebrate an extraordinary man.
Bush: To offer sympathies and to celebrate a great life.
Emotional state of the audience:
Bush: It is hard to believe that he is gone.
Talk about your own feelings:
The next thing to do is to talk about your own feelings (and not just the collective feeling).
The goal here is to connect with the audience by laying your heart bare and speaking your true sentiments. Be honest and don’t pretend to have feeling you don’t have. Doing this will convey three messages:
“I am feeling the same thing you are feeling”
“I am not afraid of showing my inner self”
“These emotions have a meaning”
When examining your own feelings, you will probably find they are mixed. This is completely natural, even if they seem contradictory. As you will see in the videos, both Bush and Obama speak about an array of mixed feeling about the death of McCain. But note how they both finish on the positive emotions:

Obama: Honour, sadness, surprise and admiration
Bush: Frustration, rivalry and friendship
Talk about the meaning of these feelings:
By talking about why everyone is here, what we’re all feeling, and laying your own heart bare, you’ll have connected with the audience. Now it’s important you go the extra step and talk about what all this means. And the way to do this is to connect these feelings to shared values and principles of your community.
Here you can see how Obama and Bush do it: 

Obama: All of us are created equal with inalienable rights
Bush: The combination of courage and decency
Whenever we talk about meaning it’s best to use special rhetorical devices. It is not sufficient to merely say, “the meaning is X”, instead we need to breathe life into meaning by:
-Poems and quotes
-Metaphors and imagery
-Rhythms of speech
-Examples from history
In this video, you can both speakers using all of the above: 
Pointing to the future:
Finally, at the end of the funeral speech it is good to talk about the future. It is the natural next step, you started talking about feelings, then meaning, then shared values and finally you should talk about what all these mean for our future.
You’ve probably been chosen to speak because of your position within this community, your relationship to the person who has died, or because of your achievements. Therefore, you are in a privileged and hopefully respected position to be able to talk about the future.
Here you can see the excerpts from the speeches where they talk about the future: 
Obama: Striving to be better, do better and be worthy of our inheritance.
Bush: Always remember that we are better than this, that America is better than this.
Delivering the Ceremonial Speech:
Here are three key things to take into account when delivering the speech:
The shorter the better: Remember that the ceremony isn’t about you, so make your speech short. While Obama is generally lauded as having been a much better speaker than Bush, I do prefer Bush’s speech over Obama at McCain’s funeral, and one of the principal reasons is that he took just seven minutes to deliver it, while Obama took 20 minutes.
Meaningful pauses:
It is also important to know how to use meaningful pauses when delivering a ceremonial speech as this an occasion laden with meaning, and you will want to give space for your carefully selected words to resonate with the audience. Give space, in the form of silence, during your speech for people to reflect on the emotion, connect with their own emotions, and think about the meaning of the occasion.
Body language:
Use more restrained movement and gestures when delivering a funeral speech, as your body language should reflect the depth and weight of the emotional content. Of course, there is no problem with being more animated at certain points of your speech, but the baseline should lean more toward restraint.
Finally, if there are other speakers at the event, check with them about what you all plan to say. At my father’s funeral, I planned to open my speech speaking about what my father had written to my mother in a birthday card just a few weeks before he died. The priest and our close family friend Denis spoke before me and despite the solemnity of the occasion I couldn’t help smile as I heard home open his speech talking about the birthday card! Exactly what I had planned. In the end it led to one of the lighthearted moment of the funeral as I got up to speak and told everyone that Denis had stolen the opening to my speech.
I hope this advice helps you help someone prepare a speech for the funeral of a loved one. The most important thing is to speak from the heart with honesty and authenticity. And my aim here is only to present you with a simple structure to allow those sentiments to flow more freely and clearly.