On Memorial Day, an Elegy to the Eulogy
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page C01
This is the season of our collective remembrances -- of bygone wars and warriors whose lives helped to shape our own, whose acts of heroism, great and small, arouse in us a sense of hope.
Memorial Day was created in 1868 as a day to remember those who died in service to our nation, and its poignancy was heightened by the dedication over the weekend of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall. Eulogies have been spoken for the millions who perished for freedom. Many more words of praise will be given across the country today.
Tom Brokaw eulogized the living and the dead in his book "The Greatest Generation," written after he had an epiphany while on assignment for NBC covering the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
"As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who landed there and now returned for this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories in the cafes and inns, I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done," Brokaw wrote. "I realized they had been all around me as I was growing up and that I had failed to appreciate what they had been through and what they had accomplished."
Ten years later, Brokaw wrote, he came to understand what this generation meant to history.
"They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world."
A eulogy for a generation. Fond farewells and sad goodbyes. What happens each Memorial Day happens across our vast landscape many times a day, every day. Death comes without prejudice. Rich or poor, celebrity or unknown, it touches all of us eventually. And the eulogies that follow help us to make sense of the loss, to extract some meaning out of what may seem meaningless.
"We are always saying goodbye in this world -- always standing on the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence -- something which is precious and gone," Adlai Stevenson said in 1962 as he gave the eulogy for his friend Eleanor Roosevelt.
More than the obituary that gives the grand flourishes of a person's life -- the job titles, the accumulated wealth, the academic achievements -- a well-crafted eulogy gives us the small things: the acts of kindness, the special talents, the perspectives that reacquaint us with this friend or relative and remind us of his worth.
Increasingly less the province of pastors and priests, eulogies are more powerful as they become more personal.
"A great eulogy is both art and architectural -- a bridge between the living and the dead," says author Cyrus M. Copeland. "There is something timeless about a well-worded goodbye."
In his book, "Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Times," Copeland notes that "there are speeches and fanfare. Suddenly our favorite charity is awash in donations. Finally our fifteen minutes have arrived." Contrarily, he says, when our icons die, their eulogies make them human again.
Take Alan Zweibel's eulogy for his longtime friend and writing partner, Gilda Radner: "Even as an adult, she was still a little girl who believed in fairy tales and that if she said 'Bunny, Bunny' on the first day of every month it would bring her love, laughter and peace."
Or Shirley Welk Fredricks talking about her father, Lawrence Welk: "The rigors of travel on the road were an accepted and often relished part of life. We learned very quickly that personal comfort was a low priority -- any old roach motel was fine. Give him hot and cold running water and he felt like a prince."
Copeland says personal insight is crucial to a well-crafted eulogy, while humor helps to lighten the burden of grief. Being honest about the person's life is key: "This is not a time to whitewash someone's humanity. It is time to revel in it." (Even friends and relatives grow annoyed at funerals when glowing comments are made about someone who was mean-spirited and difficult all his life.)
The most compelling tributes challenge us to make a difference with our lives. In his eulogy for three of the four young girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley -- killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. issued a "call to conscience."
"We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murders. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
Eulogies give us hope, and healing. Whether done in a church by a minister or in a private memorial by a friend, they help to bring the deceased's life -- and ours -- into sharper focus. And by doing so, they help us understand and appreciate the roles we all play in this world.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company