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Planning a Memorial Speech

by Jerri Haaven, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, Certified Celebrant

Speaking from Your Heart at a Memorial

Being asked to speak at a memorial is a unique honor, and may only happen once in a lifetime. At a time of loss, how does one find appropriate words relevant to the deceased, as well as to those attending a service? How can one speak from the heart, and speak thoughtfully?

We’ve put together a few helpful hints to consider as you pull together emotions and memories in the form of a memorial speech. You’ll be well on your way to creating a heart-felt tribute, which will be appreciated by all.

Memorial Location

Before you sit down to prepare your remarks, determine where the service will take place. Whether you are speaking from a podium or at a memorial site, consider that you may have the deceased’s casket or cremation urn nearby. You’ll want to be prepared for this encounter.

At some point in your speech, acknowledge the presence of the deceased. If there are keepsake urns for family members, be sure to inquire with the family if the expectation is for you to mention them.

Preparing your speech

From the moment you sit down to write your speech, you are in a discovery mode. You likely want to illuminate the life of the person who is being mourned. You’ll also want to deliver a message of hope and healing for family and friends. Where do you start? What should you say?

Perfection isn’t expected, but preparation helps. You’ll likely be provided a 10-15 minute window to express your thoughts. Have your notes bulleted, or have the ability to easily refer to your speech in its entirety.

The basic premise of a good speech is to have an introduction, middle and an end. The introduction explains who you are and what your relationship is to the deceased. For example, “My Grandpa Joe was like a father to me. After my dad died when I was just a child, Grandpa Joe was always there for me – during the good times and especially during my days as a rebellious youth.”

Take a few minutes to describe your favorite memories, and what you’ll remember most about him. Some people invoke deliberate humor, which is generally a well-accepted practice. However, if you have any doubts about whether this is appropriate, be sure to ask the family.

It’s important to also spend time with the deceased’s family and friends to inquire about their memories. Understanding what the family’s wishes are will provide you with the ability to weave their wishes into your remarks.

Ask poignant questions, such as what music he most enjoyed; what were his greatest achievements, and what was most important to him? Ask them to share their fondest memories, and take notes. Then weave their sentiments into your writing.

The final speech is surely to become a memorable tribute that will leave you, family and friends feeling reflective and uplifted. Hint: You may want to consider making copies of your eulogy for family members who may request it.

When you’ve finished writing your speech, re-read it for accuracy and that it’s appropriate for all audience members. Then there’s another step.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You’ve heard the expression, “Practice makes perfect.” Although perfection isn’t expected, practicing your speech in advance of the ceremony provides you with the confidence to deliver your words smoothly.

A great technique is to stand in front of a mirror and watch your facial expressions as you speak. Are you standing tall or are you slouching? Is your face soft, or is it tense? Are you annunciating your words, or mumbling?

By understanding your body language and listening to yourself speak, you’ll gain a better appreciation for what the audience will hear and see. This should give you confidence that what you are saying is what you intend. It also helps to ensure that you will be less likely to forget important details of the person you’re eulogizing on the actual day of the ceremony.

The Delivery

When you’ve practiced your speech to satisfaction, recognize that you’re human. It’s not uncommon for some people to be overcome by emotion and cannot finish what they intended to say. So, have a backup plan.

Ask someone to stand beside you or to sit nearby who can step in on your behalf if you are unable to continue. If this happens to you, it’s okay. Give yourself permission to be sad. Or, simply excuse yourself for a moment while you collect your thoughts, and then pick up where you left off. At such a time, you may find that you wish to stray from your written words and invoke a spontaneous memory.

There are just a few other things to be aware of to ensure your audience stays engaged with you:

  • Moderate your Voice - It is likely that there will be people in the audience who are hard of hearing. Speak loud enough for everyone to hear you, but don’t shout. Or, ask to use a microphone. If you haven’t used a microphone before, try and arrive a few minutes early to become familiar with how to use it correctly. Speak in a manner that is reflective of who you are. Be authentic, and smile where appropriate. This is a wonderful way to put your audience at ease, and softens your face. 

  • Slow and Easy – Make a deliberate attempt to speak slowly. This helps to ensure that people are listening, and reduces any nervousness you might be experiencing. It’s also a great way to keep your breathing steady and even. Take a deep breath when you need to. 

  • Pause with Purpose – Pauses are powerful when used appropriately. Pauses between important statements allow your audience time to reflect, and afford you the opportunity to collect your thoughts. Smiling in between pauses will signal to the audience that you have not lost your place, and that the pause was deliberate. 

  • Body Language – What is your body language saying? If your shoulders are slumped, or your hands are on hips or in your pockets, it may give the wrong impression. If you tend to speak with your hands, try to keep them from being a distraction by holding onto the sides of the podium, if one is available. 

  • Eye Contact – Above all else, engage your audience with your eyes. If you reference someone by name, be sure to look at him or her at that moment. Move your eyes around the area from where you are standing, from left to right, and right to left. It’s okay to stop and look at someone while speaking, but don’t linger too long. It tends to make people uncomfortable.

The day and the time arrive to deliver your remarks. It’s a solemn, but special occasion to celebrate the life of someone special to you. You’ve scripted your speech, and you’ve practiced.

The most important thing to recognize at this point is to simply speak from your heart. Because when it’s all said and done, people remember how you made them feel more than the words you spoke.

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