Some are long, and some are short. Some are deeply theological; others scarcely mention the name of God.
They are the final words of tribute spoken about people upon their death—the eulogies of the famous and beloved.
Author Ted Tobias has collected some of them in a new book as a lesson to all about both death and life.
Eulogies, he said, teach not only by what is said but also by what is not said. “The insights—and blind spots—of a eulogy are worth remembering for the honor they give to important figures and for the contribution they make to our understanding of history.”
Tobias, who lives in the Los Angeles area, was inspired to tackle the project upon hearing the eulogy of Bobby Kennedy given by his brother Ted Kennedy in 1968. As a remembrance, Edward Kennedy spoke the words of his deceased brother: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'”
Quotes like that are published in newspapers and repeated through the years, but the context in which they were spoken often is lost, Tobias realized. So after stewing on the lack of access to the full text of famous eulogies, Tobias determined to tackle the project himself.
This turned into a three-year quest that began with figuring out who actually had delivered the eulogies he was interested in, whether a written copy of the remarks existed or whether a recording had been made. He also encountered stiff opposition from some quarters—most often in the entertainment industry, he said.
Finally, he pulled together the eulogies of 42 prominent Americans from the latter half of the 20th century. The book is titled In Tribute: Eulogies of Famous People. He plans to release a second volume later this year.
In reality, eulogies of the dead must help the living, according to the daughter of Norman Vincent Peale, the minister of positive thinking.
“Funerals are not for the deceased, who have already been released from the limitations of this world,” Margaret Peale Everett said at her father’s 1993 funeral. “Funerals are for the rest of us—those family and friends and admirers who are left behind. We grieve; we feel loss; we have to adjust to a new reality.”
The best eulogists, Tobias’ research highlights, capture the essence of a person’s inner being. For example, President Richard Nixon spoke of President Dwight Eisenhower by recalling Eisenhower’s own words in a speech shortly after V-E Day: “I come from the heart of America.”
Nixon added: “Perhaps no one sentence could better sum up what Dwight Eisenhower meant to a whole generation of Americans. He did come from the heart of America, not only from its geographical heart but from its spiritual heart.”
Other eulogists lay down historical markers of the contributions made by the deceased. Such is the case with Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy by Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College.
Mays said of King: “He died striving to desegregate and integrate America to the end that this great nation of ours, born in revolution and blood, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created free and equal, will truly become the lighthouse of freedom where none will be denied because his skin is black and none favored because his eyes are blue; where our nation will be militarily strong but perpetually at peace; economically secure but just; learned but wise; where the poorest—the garbage collectors—will have bread enough and to spare; where no one will be poorly housed; each educated up to his capacity; and where the richest will understand the meaning of empathy. This was his dream, and the end toward which he strove.”
Tobias’ research demonstrates the sometimes creative adaptation of the gospel message through poignant eulogies, as in the testimony of Cardinal Roger Mahoney about farm-labor activist Cesar Chavez. In eulogizing Chavez, Mahoney adapted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to say, in part: “Blessed are those who toil daily in the fields, but who are slow to anger, gentle with others and patient in hardship. God will reward them with the hills, the fields and the lands of the earth.”
Eulogies collected by Tobias also demonstrate the power of a funeral message to preach and call people to better living.
In eulogizing Martin Luther King, for example, Mays exhorted the congregation: “No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time.”
In rare instances, the mere selection of a eulogist carries more weight than whatever the speaker actually says. Tobias highlights, for example, the eulogy of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by King Hussein of Jordan in 1995.
“You lived as a soldier,” Hussein said of his Jewish neighbor. “You died as a soldier for peace, and I believe it is time for all of us to come out openly and to speak to the camp of peace.”
And sometimes, Tobias shows, eulogists best express the character of their subject by saying what the deceased might have said about themselves.
Of the comedian George Burns, movie executive Irving Fein noted: “As he often said, he knew entrances and exits. And last Saturday, he knew it was time to go.”
Mark Wingfield is managing editor of the Baptist Standard.
Buy In Tribute: Eulogies of Famous People now from Amazon.com!
Executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global and the author of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality.