Over the last few years, Cyrus Copeland has single-handedly refocused our national attention on the power of the eulogy — by recognizing in his two popular collections of famous eulogies that saying goodbye truly is a spiritual art form.
I reached him in New York this week for a Conversation With him on what he’s learned about this art — and what we can learn from him.
As a Baby Boomer myself in my mid-50s, not a month passes that I don’t hear of a death of someone who shaped my life. Sometimes, these deaths are at a distance — like the passing of the influential film director and actor Sydney Pollack on Memorial Day.
Sometimes the deaths are very close to home — and I find myself mourning with friends.
As part of the biggest generation of Americans passing into later life — this is a spiritual art form that millions of us are going to need.
And, quite frankly — even more than the eulogy itself — the ability to see clearly and capture the “essence of a life” is a powerful tool in spiritual discernment.
In plain language: We can do a great deal of good — you and I — simply by helping a friend to see the transcendent meaning in what they may think is a seemingly ordinary life.
Come back tomorrow for a few moving examples of that spiritual principle.
If you missed our 10-question Quiz yesterday on famous eulogies — jump back and check that out.
To read more about Cyrus Copeland’s two collections — click on the book covers below and you’ll jump to our bookstore, where you’ll find reviews and can buy copies right now, if you wish.
And, today, please — keep Telling Us What You Think.
DAVID: You live in New York City and your early career was in advertising. I know that much of your story. Then, around 2001, you left Madison Avenue behind and turned yourself into our leading expert on eulogies. Did you plan that unusual move?
CYRUS: It’s funny how life dips and turns. This was not at all the intended career path for me. Writing was my path -– but becoming The Goodbye Guy wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination what I was planning.
But paths open up in life and you follow them. This has been a nourishing journey for me. For the better part of four or five years I worked on this. Sometimes, I’ve even been on the funeral-directors’ circuit as a motivational speaker on the art of eulogizing.
DAVID: In your two books together, you’ve collected more than 100 really interesting, sometimes funny and often really moving eulogies –- personal salutes that friends have delivered after a death. And what’s so amazing about your two books is that, while producing them, you pretty much discovered an unexplored literary niche in American publishing. You were able to do this and zoom to the top of this particular literary art form –- because no one had thought to approach this ritual of saying goodbye in quite this way.
What was the defining moment, if there was one, that led to this?
CYRUS: Two things, actually.
When my father died in 1992, I had the bittersweet fortune to eulogize him and that’s when I started looking for examples of how other people have done this. I snooped around and I discovered that nobody had done a book like this before. But, amazingly, at that point I did nothing with the idea of doing a book. I went back to my career in advertising and my expense account of which I was enamored.
Then, 9/11 happened.
I was in New York and saw the city just awash in memorials — and not just any memorials but memorials to fire fighters and police who became the newfound idea of what the American hero should be. That was a crystallizing moment -– this was a book whose time had come. I said goodbye to my ad career and started working on this full time.
The second crystallizing moment was in the New York Public Library when I was going through some eulogies I could read online. I came across one written by Courtney Love for Kurt Cobain, which quite originally was the suicide note he had left behind. She read this note at a candle-lit memorial to him, punctuated by her own expletive-ridden additions expressing feelings that are common to survivors of a suicide. But, as I read it — It was so powerful and so brutally honest that in the middle of the New York Public Library, I absolutely wept at the unrelenting beauty at this honesty, this anger, this art form.
I thought to myself: If goodbyes can be as powerful as this one clearly is –- then I think I’m on to something.
DAVID: That particular eulogy is not in your books, though, is it?
CYRUS: No, interestingly, of the hundreds of people I approached for permission to include their eulogies in my books, there were only two who said, “No.” One of them was Courtney love. Or, actually she just kept on not giving a reason for declining to give me permission — until I got it that no reply on that ever would come from her –- it was just not going to happen.
DAVID: This spiritual art form -– and that’s really what you’ve shown us that the eulogy can become –- has been around for a very long time. Thousands of years. Many will remember the famous scene in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in which his friend turns a eulogy over his body into a rabble-rousing occasion of great power. It’s one of the most famous scenes in Western literature. I can still remember Marlon Brando delivering it in one of the movie versions.
But you point out that, really, the eulogy as we know it now -– a friend standing up at a funeral or memorial and trying to capture the essence of the departed person’s life –- you’re saying that’s a relative new art form.
CYRUS: Memorializing people who’ve died is something that goes back as far as human life itself goes. But, yes, really it’s since about 1990 that it’s become common for friends to get up and do this.
Before that, most eulogies in America were delivered by clergy. Now, I’d say a good 50 percent of eulogies are delivered by people like you and I. They tend to be delivered in story form –- and that narrative tone is a hallmark of a good eulogy. A eulogy is not an obiturary. It’s not just a listing of the events and awards and distinctions. A eulogy is personal –- about how a person touched our lives.
DAVID: I’ve been amazed at the strong, positive, coast-to-coast response to your two books. I was searching through an online library the other day for newspaper and magazine references to your work –- and you’ve been everywhere, Cyrus.
CYRUS: Right. And, because I’ve done so much work on this and have been invited to talk to so many groups of people, I’ve come up with some key points for writing a great eulogy. I’m working right now on another book about how to write eulogies –- and these five points will find themselves into that book I’m doing now.
First, you need to start memorably.
If you start in the way you think you’re supposed to start with that old, “Dearly beloved we’re gathered here today …,” then you’ve already said goodbye to your audience. They’ve heard that a thousand times on television. The more unexpected the opening, the better.
When Madonna was eulogizing Versace, she began with: “I slept in Gianni Versace’s bed.” And, from the get-go she had the audience. When Diane Sawyer eulogized Lucille Ball, she had quite a memorable opener, asking: “Is there laughter in heaven?”
So, start strong is the first thing — and the second is: Be honest.
People can smell a snow job coming a mile away. The people who are gathered are not expecting to memorialize a saint. They want to hear remembrances of this person’s humanity -– and part of that is being honest. There’s a way to be gently honest without being demeaning — and that’s the fine line you want to walk.
Jack Benny’s eulogy by Bob Hope is a good example of that. To be honest, Jack Benny was a stingy man, and Hope said that -– but he said it in a way that turned into something special. Hope said, “He was stingy to the end.” But he immediately added to that: “He gave us only 80 years, and it wasn’t enough.”
DAVID: I loved reading that one about Jack Benny. There are so many in your collections of eulogies that tell us a lot about the memorable people who shaped the last century.
What are your other points?
CYRUS: The third thing you need for a great eulogy is what we’ve been talking about already -– telling a story. We all want to know that our lives mean something, that they count for something. We want to know that, while playing the roles we play each day –- we made a difference.
A good eulogy tells us something about that difference this person made. A story about that always lifts the eulogy out of the mundane into the interesting and touches people’s lives. It’s those stories that distinguish this art form from the art of writing an obituary.
Then, the fourth thing is related to the third thing. It’s this: Speak personally. If your eulogy for your friend Tom could easily be confused with your eulogy for Albert –- then you’ve done no one a service here. You might as well be telling a story about the postman. So, telling stories about people individualizes our lives.
DAVID: That’s a big problem for clergy doing eulogies, these days. It’s the single most-talked-about moment of either a heart-felt success -– or a disappointing failure –- in a funeral conducted entirely by clergy. I mean, that’s what I hear, when I talk to people who attended the service.
If clergy manage to personalize what they’re saying in the service, it can become almost an unforgettable moment among the people who attended. But I’ve also heard from countless people who say, sadly, that the clergy person was too busy with other things or barely knew the family and didn’t make much effort to say anything personal.
I know this is incredibly tough for clergy -– especially in denominations like the Catholic church where you’ll have a single priest sometimes serving thousands and thousands of families.
CYRUS: Another problem is that we’re so mobile now. Many people don’t have clergy who’ve known them and followed their lives. So, you really can’t expect clergy to do this kind of a personal eulogy as we might have in the past, when we all grew up in the same towns and didn’t move around too much.
DAVID: Well, you’ve got one last lesson you’ve learned right?
CYRUS: Yes. You want to finish as memorably as you’ve started.
If you think about it, this is about the big finish. This is it. This is the 11th hour, the final goodbye. So, make it count.
James Woods had one of the best closings I’ve found. He was eulogizing Bette Davis at her memorial service and he finished with: “For all of us who will be there someday and for those who are there now, I guarantee that up in heaven somewhere they are saying, ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy eternity.’”
SO ENDS our Conversation With Cyrus Copeland.