What you should say when giving a eulogy
In the wake of the United Synagogue’s decision to allow lay people to speak at funerals, we look at what should - or not - be said.
The burial of Sarah by Gustave Dore — the tradition of eulogising the dead goes back to Abraham
My great uncle was never much of a shul-goer and in his final years, illness and frailty prevented him attending synagogue altogether. When he died, we panicked. “How will the new rabbi find words to eulogise him at the funeral?” we asked. But my aunt was not perturbed. Using a shocking but highly memorable expression, she informed us that, “If the birdie don’t sing, he won’t get no bird seed.” Sure enough, somehow the minister managed to assemble a suitable tribute to a man he had never met. But, even then, as a young child, I was left wondering whether that’s how the dead should be remembered. Isn’t it better to leave eulogies to a close family member? Jewish law demands high standards of piety and expertise from those who wish to lead prayer services, adjudicate Jewish law or conduct a wedding, but it says nothing at all about who should eulogise the dead. A look at the sources, however, offers us some guidance as to who should speak and what they should say. Hespedim (eulogies) have been part of our heritage for thousands of years. The Bible records that Abraham and many of our ancestors gave eulogies for their loved ones. Later, the rabbis decreed that everyone is entitled to receive a hesped when they die. Rabbi Soloveitchik, one of great leaders of 20th-century American Jewry, explained that this is because no one’s departure from this world should be shrouded by indifferent silence. We who are left behind should tell their story, mark their achievements and learn as much as we can from their life. This is so important that although we normally respect a person’s final wishes, when scholars request that no hesped be given for them, we ignore them since the community’s need to learn from their lives takes precedence over their personal considerations. But attending a funeral is not only an intellectual experience; it’s an emotional one too. According to the Gemara, the measure of a successful eulogy is the sobbing of the listeners. So, perhaps the best qualification for the speaker is not scholarship or piety, but their ability to conjure up memories of the deceased; speaking with such warmth, tenderness and love, that everyone present feels a deep sense of loss. It’s not always easy to evoke these emotions, but our sages said that “words from the heart penetrate the hearts of others”. That’s why a genuine outpouring of grief by family members may be preferable to a more eloquent presentation by a rabbi who never knew the deceased and cannot share the pain of the mourners. Preparing a hesped can be challenging. Jewish funerals take place as soon as possible after death; leaving the family barely any time to collect their thoughts, compose themselves and prepare an appropriate speech. In the bleak moments of shock, exhaustion and grief that often follow the loss of a loved one, mourners frequently struggle to recall the living, healthy figure who played such a major role in their lives. They are simply overwhelmed by images of their relative sick and dying. In these circumstances, there is no shame in handing over the job to a professional rabbi. But reminiscing with friends and looking at old photographs are helpful tools to recover memories. As these flood back, the family can begin building their speeches; weaving together the life story of the deceased and their accomplishments, using short anecdotes to bring out the person’s character. A hesped should focus on the kind, charitable deeds performed by the deceased. But it’s easy to get carried away with the praise of those who are no longer with us. A Jewish proverb cynically warns that after death every rascal is treated like a saint. This presents a problem since the Torah instructs us to distance ourselves from the slightest trace of dishonesty. The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, warns that hespedim must be delivered with integrity; gross exaggeration is forbidden (Yoreh Deah 344: 1). For the family, it can sometimes be hard to know the limits. Where someone has done real evil, the rule is simple: we do not eulogise them — better to maintain a tactful silence rather than twist the truth. But in other cases, the halachah permits us to give the deceased a little more credit than they deserve. The Taz (Rabbi David Segal, 1586-1667) was troubled by this apparently disingenuous leniency. In his landmark commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, he offered several possible reasons as to why embellishment may be permitted in a eulogy. Firstly, he warned that if we were forced to stick to the plain truth without any exaggeration at all, zealous people would be overly cautious. They would stint in their praise of their loved ones; shortchanging them of the praise they had deserved. He also pointed out that even in the most intimate relationships, there is so much that goes unsaid. None of us can be aware of every good deed that someone else did during their life, so we have to leave a margin of error to account for the many private acts of kindness that they may have done. Finally, he suggests that good people deserve credit for their good intentions even if these were never fulfilled, for had they only known the infinite value of a good deed they would certainly have done it. When speaking of our dead relatives, we can afford to be generous. Attending a funeral can be heartbreaking, but it should also be an uplifting experience. In Israel, even at the most religious funerals, it is common to have several hespedim delivered in turn by grieving partners, children and grandchildren; each from their own perspective. These personal speeches can be deeply moving and cathartic for speakers and listeners alike. A beautiful midrash compares a funeral to the docking of a ship that has been on a long and dangerous voyage. Just as we rejoice at the safe arrival of the vessel, so too, we should all take comfort at the end of a life lived with commitment to our heritage, decency and integrity.
Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue’s Tribe Israel