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How to Speak Well at a Funeral or Memorial Service

Updated on November 8, 2017
SoniaSylart profile image

Having contributed to and helped organise a number of funerals, Sonia shares salient thoughts and observations.

How to Speak Well at a Funeral
How to Speak Well at a Funeral | Source

Are You Worried About

  • Being anxious and/or crying when you are due to speak?
  • Being distracted or sidetracked by others silently weeping or audibly crying during your rendition?
  • Rushing through your delivery, making multiple errors, or being unable to finish your tribute, speech, or poem?

Although rehearsing will undoubtedly help—as detailed below—there is actually much more you can do to make a significant and positive difference to your performance and feelings on the day. This straightforward but key guidance includes a 3 Point Plan for coping with tears and is divided into two sections—before the day and on the day of the funeral.

Before the Funeral

About Your Audience

In the days leading up to the funeral, of course, you must rehearse reading your poem or tribute but before you do so, take a few moments to imagine that you are standing facing a large group of people, all of whom are focused on hearing what you have to say and, at the same time, some of whom are visibly distressed and/or weeping. Acknowledging that this scenario may be on the horizon and accepting it head on is a tall ask, but it is worth the effort because in so doing you’re preparing yourself for what could well lie ahead, making things somewhat easier for you on the day of the funeral.

Another Thing About Your Audience

This next bit is not so daunting but equally as important to take into account. So, at the same time as you imagine that assembled group of solemn people, also imagine that they are “in your corner”, eager and patient to hear what you have to say.

Yes, imagine and believe that they are silently willing you on to perform your poem or tribute from beginning to end with emotion and sincerity.

In other words, know and believe that they want you to do well in reading your funeral poem or tribute. Know that they although they don't want to see anybody completely break down, they will indeed understand that it can be an overwhelming experience for some people and will be forgiving should that be the case for you or, indeed, anyone else.

Still not convinced? Then imagine that you are in the assembled audience and someone is in the spotlight delivering their tribute, poem, or whatever, and ask yourself—Do you want them to do well? Would you be sending them invisible good vibes? Of course, you would and so now help yourself by taking on board the fact that the same is true in reverse and allow this notion to ease your perfectly understandable trepidation.

Sauntering vs. Galloping

When we want to get something difficult over and done with, our instinct is to rush through it as quickly as possible. However, trying to race through your poem, eulogy or tribute can render you more prone to stumble on words or miss words out altogether. Making these errors need not be the end of the world, but for some, once one error is made, nerves are heightened and, with elevated anxiety, there is more potential for further errors.

Hence, it’s wise to go slowly rather than speed through your reading.

Something else to bear in mind is that people will appreciate having time to take in and contemplate what you have to say and this is more difficult for them to do if you race through the poem, reading or speech.

Tone and Audibility

With a fine funeral poem, tribute or reading to hand, it would be a pity to dull its meaning and effect by reading in a monotone or reading so quietly that others cannot hear or comprehend what you say. Of course, it helps if there is a microphone and you must resist the urge to mumble. It’s also wise to consider what words or sections you might want to put special emphasis on.

This emphasis might take the form of a lower/deeper pitch, a louder or softer (but still clearly audible) volume or a somewhat faster or more drawn out speed of reading. Bearing in mind that we all use a range of tones in our everyday life, avoiding a monotone voice need not mean you have to invent a false or unnatural voice. Therefore experiment with tone, volume and speed of reading (but without racing as recommended above) until it feels right.

Other ways of avoiding a monotone include injecting a surprised, puzzled, shocked or exasperated tone for example but it’s up to you to decide what’s right for the poem, verse or tribute or reading you are imparting. Facial expression and hand gestures are further factors which influence delivery.

All that said, perfect deliveries are rare at funerals. Simply commit to preparing well but know it’s not the end of the world if you mess up in parts. Again, others will understand that you are struggling with your loss and they are on your side.

Speaking with feeling, even tearfully will always trump speaking in an indifferent, expressionless monotone.

Instant Contradiction

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the whys and wherefores of practicing your poem or tribute, in order to speak well, now's the time to face your thought processes head on. So, if you're anxious and keep telling yourself it’ll be a complete disaster, or not far from it, you can start by contradicting yourself as and when you start thinking to yourself “I can’t do this” or something similar.

In practice, this means that you immediate counteract these understandable, but extremely unhelpful, thoughts by straightaway telling yourself something helpful and beneficial instead. For example, as soon as you start thinking something like “I’ll never be able to do this,” immediately follow this thought with “Stop—I am now in the process of preparing well for this event and I’ll be just fine on the day.”

At times like these, positivity can make all the difference so please help yourself by promising yourself to contradict unhelpful doubtful thoughts as soon as they occur in your mind. Don’t fret that the unhelpful thoughts keep occurring—but do deal with them head-on, as described above, whenever they do occur.

Strengthening Yourself to the Max

Another thing—when you contradict yourself as outlined above, you must do it with feeling as if you actually mean it. Speak to yourself/contradict yourself with a very resolute and firm inner voice, rather than in a lack-lustre weak tone. In other words, talk to yourself in a manner that makes you sit up and take notice.

Reading Word for Word vs. Reading Prompts

To some extent, your choice of reading as opposed to using reading prompts may depend on the length and nature of what you are delivering, not to mention how confident you feel.

Using prompts is generally considered more natural and interesting for the audience. In practice, this means rather than write complete sentences, write a few words/groups of words for each topic or area you wish to cover and use these notes as reminders/prompts for what you will speak about, spontaneously filling in the gaps to form complete and natural sentences when delivering it on the day.

However, particularly if a person is feeling anxious and emotional about performing at a funeral or memorial service, they may elect to read their tribute word for word.

Thankfully, Reading Word for Word Needn't Necessarily Detract From the Rendition If ...

... to begin with, it is intentionally written in a less formal/more conversational tone to help with flow and delivery on the day.

Whether reading word for word or using prompt cards, use a large font size and double line spacing to make it easier to read. You can also add notes reminding you to pause, breathe and read more slowly rather than race through it.

Eyes Out

Whether you are reading something out or reciting from memory, do rehearse looking out to your imagined audience from time to time as you proceed, rather than keeping your eyes fixed downwards on the sheet of paper you are holding or looking into space the whole time. Do note—it’s not necessary to look everybody or anybody in the eye and it’s not the end of the world if you cannot manage this on the day of the funeral, but it won’t hurt to practice doing so in hopeful anticipation of doing so on the day.

As to Your Rehearsals

When, and only when, you have taken on board the above points it’s time to stand and start rehearsing your poem, tribute or reading.

Take a deep breath as necessary before you start, and then using prompt cards or a printout begin to speak/read through your poem.

Be conscious

  • not to race through
  • not to have your head/eye down the whole time—instead, look out to scan your imagined audience from time to time
  • to vary your tone and speak up.

Recording and listening back to yourself are optional. Also, another option is memorizing the poem or tribute, and if you choose to go that route, you can always have a copy of the tribute to hand should you falter a little and need to refresh your memory.

Know What You're Wearing

Have a good think about what you will feel most comfortable in and what the dress code is, if any. Then get everything you will be wearing ready well in advance—right down to shoes/baggage/heargear—so that on the day, you don't have to fret about your appearance in addition to any other anxiety you may still have.

Often, Just Knowing There's a Back-Up Plan ...

... can bolster the confidence of a person tasked with doing a reading at a funeral. Therefore give thought to, for example, pre-arranging who might take over reading for you in case you are unable to finish, or how about pre-recording your reading and arranging for it to be played out to the audience if you are unable to finish.

Likewise, you are also advised to keep a note to hand with the words "Breathe, Think, Persevere" written on it so that you'll remember what to do (detailed below) should you become overwhelmed on the day.

If you are able to prepare well and take on board at least some of the points on this page, it's less likely that you will need a plan B. However, with a plan B pre-arranged, you're even less likely to need to call upon it.

Again, Do Take Into Account that ...

the people listening to your verse or tribute are on your side. Do let this notion fully sink in and allow it to calm and encourage you to summon your speaking voice and take your time.

On the Day of the Funeral

Remember to Take ...

  • card prompts or a printout of your speech/reading
  • a spare copy to give to someone else who is attending as a backup.
  • a few tissues in your pocket or bag
  • reading glasses/spectacles
  • a note reminding you what to do should you hesitate or struggle during the delivery (more on this below)
  • optionally - a tape recording of what you want to say, assuming you have pre-arranged this as one of your back-up options
  • some water in case you need to take a sip during your rendition

Your Crucial Three Point Plan for Coping with Tears

At a funeral, it’s not easy to talk about someone you feel deeply about without tearing up. If you feel anxious, distracted by others, or tempted to rush through your rendition and/or something similarly disconcerting, the following will help you.

  1. Take a few deep slow breaths in and out and, as you do so,
  2. kindly but firmly tell yourself, and keep thinking and repeating to yourself—
    “With or without tears, I can do this.”
  3. Then simply resume (or optionally restart) the speech/reading and try to proceed as you have practiced and without making direct eye contact with anyone if the sight of others crying is likely to set you off crying or make you cry more.

Maybe something other than tears may threaten to engulf you, in which case you can leave out the bit about tears in the quote above and resolutely tell yourself, "I can do this."

In acting on the above advice what you are doing is being patient with yourself, and allowing yourself some time to recover and compose yourself. You'll be giving yourself the opportunity to continue and complete what you intended to say.

Perfection vs. Doing Your Best

Don't chastise yourself or feel overly embarrassed or defeatist at any point. On the contrary, be gentle with yourself in your grief and know that your best is plenty good enough. Again, the day of a memorial or funeral is one which can be extremely emotional for a variety of reasons and if someone falters in their delivery of a tribute, it’s perfectly understandable.

Indeed, the writer of this page has witnessed professional, experienced officiators of funerals hesitate and shed more than a tear or two at a moving service—so please know that whether you are reading your own original poem, an existing poem, the words of a song, a passage or verse from a book/holy book, or perhaps singing a musical tribute, it doesn’t have to be word perfect to still be a very rewarding and fulfilling experience for both you and all those you are addressing.

REMEMBER—Breathe, Think, Persevere

"With or without tears, I can do this"

Following the Above Strategy

—which includes taking into account your audience, strengthening yourself for the task, how to rehearse your delivery and what to do should you falter on the day, is highly likely to have you speak well and enhance your performance at a funeral or memorial service. It is not, however, a guaranteed magic formula for a perfect performance each and every time. Overarching everything is the notion that you simply need to prepare as best you can and thereafter whatever happens on the day will be entirely acceptable, as you'll know you did your best.

Got Any Tips or Experiences of Funeral Speaking to Share?

You are most welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© 2017 Sonia Sylart

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