Until I found myself sweating in my seat, I never gave much thought to funeral drama—at least, not beyond the storylines of a few guilty pleasure soap operas. I had my own moment of turmoil though when a minister presented an innocent remark out of context during my father’s eulogy.
With a booming, animated voice that reverberated around the tiny church, she described how I had strode into her office to declare that my father was not religious. You could hear the punctuation marks leaping off her page and my heart lodged in my throat. I had said no such thing. Rather, at the beginning of our funeral planning meeting, she asked if my father was a religious man. It seemed a wholly pragmatic question and I answered truthfully.
My father’s lack of piety was hardly a secret. But it wasn’t the information she shared that made me uncomfortable but rather the presentation. What else might be presented out of context? I was suddenly dizzy with anxiety, distressed about what might come next.
I needn’t have worried. Her high-spirited opening was a segue to a wan sermon. But I remained unnerved, distracted. Stewing with irritation, I hardly heard another word she said. Where I had expected closure, I had instead found aggravation. This wasn’t the eulogy I had expected, the send-off I had planned.
The stewing continued until several months after my father’s death when I unexpectedly remembered how much he loved classic cars. How his lifelong admiration for vintage automobiles escaped me is a mystery. The standard issue hearse provided by the funeral home suddenly felt utterly inappropriate in retrospect.
I was suddenly much more sympathetic to the challenge of presenting a eulogy. Eulogies must be impossible tasks no matter the circumstances and it seemed foolhardy to have been so distraught at a few overly dramatic words from the pulpit. I had spent so much time dwelling on the minister’s failings and abruptly discovered that I had a failing of my own! How could I have forgotten to share such an important detail of my father’s life?
What if forgetting about the cars was just the tip of the iceberg? What other important stories and memories had I neglected to share at our pre-funeral meeting, stories and memories that would have brought comfort to others? I was sweating once more, but this time it was for all the things left unsaid.
My regret had a silver lining though. I realized that closure is not a responsibility you can assign to someone else, nor is it something you can provide. My eulogy aggravation was an easy opportunity to focus on anything but my own grief and I doubt that any amount of stories, any style of delivery would have brought me closure that day.
I’ve learned that a eulogy is a public moment of comfort but closure is a personal journey. The minister was no more to blame for her hyperbolic delivery than I was for my grief induced car amnesia. And I’ve recognized that I didn’t need a eulogy but rather I needed knowledge, an understanding that grief and remembrance is a process and the struggle to summarize a long life with short words is just the beginning.
Vanessa Chiasson is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, FlightNetwork.com, Plum Deluxe, and The Establishment.