What Do You Want People to Say About You When You’re Gone?
It’s a question each of us ought to ask ourselves: “What do I want people to say about me when I’m gone?”
As a minister I’ve done literally hundreds of funerals over the course of my ministry. The vast majority of those have been for people I haven’t known. Local funeral homes have lists of pastors who will officiate at funerals for people who don’t have a church affiliation or know a pastor or priest. They need that pastor to be sensitive to the situation, have the ability to write a good eulogy for a mother or a eulogy for a friend or a eulogy for a co-worker. They give us a call. I have been blessed to be, apparently, near the top of a couple of those lists so get called on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been told that I write pretty good eulogies.
I begin the funeral or memorial service by giving some thoughts on death and dying and hope in the afterlife then write a eulogy that is as personal as it can be having not known the deceased. Then I offer guests at the funeral or memorial service an opportunity to share memories of the one they’ve lost.
Sometimes a son or a daughter will have prepared a eulogy for their father or mother and will do a wonderful job at presenting it. Other times their eulogy for dad or mom isn’t well thought out and often is more about themselves than their loved one. Or their ability to express themselves in this stressful time is less than stellar (that’s why TheEulogyWriters.com was created – because everyone deserves one of the wonderful ones).
The spontaneous mini-eulogies that family members and friends offer are often great little stories – maybe a funny story or a poignant story about the one lying there in the casket. Sometimes they are touching, giving real insight into the person they’ve lost.
What I’ve noticed, though, is how, taken as a whole, these spontaneous eulogies paint a picture of the one who has died as a complex person with flaws and quirks but all of those are overshadowed by kindness and gentleness and love. They tell stories of thoughtfulness and how they served and helped others… about what a great husband or neighbor or friend they were… sometimes (and this touches my heart) how faith-filled they were.
Interestingly, even when it is a co-worker who stands to give their little funeral tribute, they seldom refer to great accomplishments or skill in the workplace or how much money they brought in for the company. They seldom mention awards they received or innovations or creativity. They talk about dependability and trustworthiness and helpfulness and kindness.
Those little eulogies make me want to ask everyone there: What will people say about you when you die? What qualities of your life will people remember and take note of? Who are you, at the core? What are you doing to insure that people will remember you in ways you want to be remembered? Someone WILL tell of your life. What do you want them to say?
If your children or grandchildren have the courage to write a eulogy for you and stand in front of all the guests at your funeral, what will they say? If your husband or wife puts together a eulogy depicting your life, what will it contain? A eulogy for a parent is very difficult to write, of course, because of so many memories coming to mind causes the grief to be pretty sharp.
Will your kids say you were a wonderful father. Will your grandchildren say you were the best grandma a kid could ever have? Will a friend eulogize you as one who took amazing care of his family? Will your cousin say you were inspirational in the way you cared for your ailing parent in his or her ending years?
It is my job, as the clergy present, to write a eulogy for the one who has died. I begin that process by meeting with the family to find out all I can about their loved one. I am often shocked at how little family members can tell me about their brother or sister or friend who has just died. I’ve concluded, over the years, that there is a psychological defense mechanism that kicks in in times of grief and loss. Memories and feelings and emotions are numbed to protect us… At least that is what I hope happens. I’ve been astounded, more often than I can say, at how often family members have virtually nothing to say about their loved one’s life. “He was a good person… that’s about it.” It takes some creativity to write a eulogy for dad when that is all you know about him.
So I ask, shouldn’t we be proactive? It seems that, if we want people to remember specific things about us, we need to be consciously working to make those things stand out in our lives.
Wouldn’t it be tragic if people said non-complimentary things about us when we die or bland things (although, of course, we won’t know what they say, so maybe whatever it is that is said won’t really matter all that much). But do you want you loved ones to say things like, “I never really knew dad. He was always working.” “Mom didn’t seem to have much time for us kids. She was always involved with her friends.” “Dad always seemed to be disappointed in me and my siblings.” “Grandma and I never talked much. She tended to be pretty quiet.” “Grandpa seemed like he was angry at life all the time. I was a bit afraid of him.”
Did you notice that even the most negative remembrances are about relationships? RELATIONSHIPS matter more than just about anything else in a person’s life. If we are remembered – for better or for ill – it will be all about relationships. Whatever we want people to say about us when we die, demands that we be proactive, working on relationships above all else.
Wouldn’t it be great to have people say things like: “She was the most loving mother imaginable.” “It was clear that we were a priority in dad’s life – more important than anything else in the world.” “My grandma was my best friend. I don’t know who I’ll go to with my problems now that she’s gone.” “I remember that grandpa volunteered down at the shelter. He’d go there every Saturday morning and help distribute clothing.” “Every time we talked, the conversation ended with her saying, ‘I love you.’”
Relationships and character. Those are the things that will matter in the end. I once heard this statement: “Success in any other area of life cannot make up for failure at home.” And that is so true. None of us are perfect and we WILL fail from time to time at home and in our relationships, but we want to be sure that the successes in those areas far outweigh the failures. When someone writes a eulogy for dad or a eulogy for mom, the negatives will fade into oblivion and the good things about those relationships and character and sense of values will come to the forefront of memory.
I don’t want to get too preachy and religious, but the Bible says the same thing in that famous chapter by St. Paul: I may speak in different languages, whether human or even of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am only a noisy bell or a ringing cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, I may understand all secrets and know everything there is to know, and I may have faith so great that I can move mountains. But even with all this, if I don’t have love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have to help others, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing by doing all this if I don’t have love. (I Corinthians 13: 1-3)
And, I suppose that does, indeed, raise a religious issue of some significance. WHAT WILL GOD SAY ABOUT YOU WHEN YOU DIE? Will He (She/Thou) say “Well done” or not? What will constitute God’s stamp of approval on what you’ve done with the life you’ve been given? Again, it most certainly has to do with relationships and character and values. God is all about values and expects character from all of us. Most of us, whether we are God followers or not, tend to hold that concept as sacrosanct. We SHOULD be a person of sterling character (honest and good and true) and we SHOULD hold those values outlined in the Ten Commandments as the gold standard by which we live…
As a Christian, a relationship with the creator is the greatest boost to the character we display and the values we cling to and a way of life that is admirable. Knowing Jesus simply makes us better people (or at least it ought to). And it gives those we love a hope to cling to in their time of grief at our dying.
Following is a list of things I hope people will say about me when I’m gone:
He loved life
He was an amazing father and grandfather
He loved people deeply and was not afraid to show it
He told people all the time what they meant to him
He was never afraid to say the words, ‘I love you’
He told people of the beauty he saw in them
He was very affectionate to his wife and his family
He was sensitive to the needs of others
He was creative
He was never afraid to try new things
He was no push over and could express his opinions well
He was one of the most calm people you would ever meet
He was as good looking as his genes would allow
He was respectful of life and how short it is
He took good care of his body
He enjoyed toying with ideas and concepts – he had a sharp mind
He was honest
He was generous
He was a hard worker
He was playful
He was hopeful
He was funny
He was never in a rut
He was not afraid of change
He did not waste precious moments
He made a difference in the lives of others and in his world
He had an entrepreneurial spirit
He inspired others
He was willing to go out of his way to help others
That’s my current list. I suspect that when I go to bed tonight my subconscious mind will come up with other things and I’ll have to add to it in the morning. I do hope my eulogy will be an easy one to write – that my loved ones will be able to think of things to say about me – not so much what I did in life, but how I lived it and how I interacted and related to others – the kind of person I was…
Now - you make your list. Think about it all day today and allow your subconscious to work on it tonight. Tomorrow, take a few minutes and list the things that should be included in your eulogy. Then make those things the central focus of who you are. If you do, you will be blessed. Your world will be blessed… and when you die, your family and friends - and the minister who eulogizes you – will have all manner of good things to say about you.
Steve Schafer is the founder of TheEulogyWriters and is probably the most prolific eulogy writer (and, no doubt, the best) anywhere. He lives in Michigan and has been writing eulogies for well over thirty years. The articles in this blog are designed to help people through the process of losing loved ones.