My Great Aunt Josephine died two weeks ago. She was 101. One hundred and one! A true matriarch, she lived through the Great Depression, the World War that killed her brother, the deaths of two sisters, the death of her son, an alcoholic ex-husband, and a brief stint waiting tables on mafia members in South Philly. It wasn’t an easy run.
I was barely privy to any of it. Most of my memories of her were from when I was a kid. Or more accurately, my memories were of me being a kid and wildly intimidated by her. I never bothered trying to win her over. What kid wants to cut through their aunt’s steely resolve when they could be playing water balloons with cousins?
As I sat in the church, trying to figure out why the priest was accenting the PHINE part of her name (really, who would pronounce it that way? Joe-sa-PHINE?), it occurred to me that I’m not sure I ever had a real conversation with her. I wasn’t 100% on whether I knew her last name*
*This isn’t as distant as it sounds. I’m from a large Italian family. To simplify things, the family reunion is under one family name (Balducci) and everyone is a cousin, aunt or uncle. It wasn’t until college, studying for a Spanish test, that I learned the terms niece and nephew.
Just as my mind was wandering–again, the Josephine/JosePHINE thing–the priest started telling stories. I learned Aunty Josephine loved art. That she had poetry book upon poetry book. I had no idea. Learning all of this, hearing these stories was, I’ll say it, fun.
Fast forward a week. Jess’ friend Linda turned 40 and had a gathering at Zahav in Old City. An hour in, Linda’s husband stood to give a toast. He told stories. He revealed secrets. Jess’ mom friend had been on Sisqo’s Shakedown??? Who knew? My brain lit up in a similar way as during the eulogy.
Obviously, the tone is different in a eulogy versus a celebratory toast. But other than that? Eulogies and toasts are nearly the same. Weirdly.
In each case, the best approach is to treat the speech like you’re introducing a person to the audience. Or, as the case may be, introducing the audience to an aspect of her life.
A good format for this is:
• Choose one trait you want the audience to know about
• Tell a story illuminating said trait
• Elaborate on the person + that trait
• Finish with a final statement of gratitude – towards guests but mostly towards the person you’re introducing. Something like “Aunt Jo, you changed me in ways I’ll never fully grasp” is much better than “thanks everyone for coming.”
Lastly – and importantly – get on and off the stage in five minutes (Ten if you’re really, really good).
Note: beware the crutch of starting by starting with a line like “I’m Mike and I worked with Chris at Fremulon Insurance.” This isn’t nearly as interesting as you think. There is no requirement to announce how you know the person.
If you do want to go down that road, two strong ways of doing it are:
You don’t need to tell their whole life story. You don’t need to roast them. You just need to give the audience something to love about this person.
Speak well my friends,
P.S. On our Speech Club Slack channel, one of our magnificent students wrote:
I was at a friend’s second wedding this past weekend and heard a real doozy of a speech – thought of all of you instantly and how I had to share with “speech club.” The best man called the bride by the wrong name (first wife’s name) and it was all downhill from there – eek!! This was about 10 minutes into the reception- made for an interesting evening!!
P.P.S. It’s less likely to happen, but roasts happen at eulogies too. Don’t be that guy.