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  • Writer's pictureRuth Jewell

Speaking at a Funeral Service

Being asked to speak at a funeral service is a huge honour, but isn't easy!

When I meet with my families they often have family members, friends or colleagues who would like to speak during the service. This may be a piece they have written, or wish to share a piece of prose or poem.

I am often told that the person is an accomplished speaker, and here I am going to insert a big BUT, what people don’t understand is that speaking at a funeral is completely different to speaking at a Wedding, presenting, lecturing, or even acting. Trust me, I have seen many accomplished speakers fall apart, or struggle, when speaking at a funeral service.

By its nature, a funeral is an emotional place to be. Often that emotion is palpable, and the person speaking is usually dealing with their own grief. Standing in front of a room full of people who are sad, or crying, can be very unnerving indeed. Nothing else compares to it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t speak, but they do need to be as well prepared as they can. There are a few simple things that can help enormously, and I always share these with my families/speakers.

Firstly, I limit the number of words they are going to speak. This not only makes them key down into what they really want to say, but we also know that 350-400 words is manageable. Any more than that and the emotion can become overwhelming, and people struggle to get through.

Secondly, I suggest that they print what they are going to say in 24 font. This is large but, no matter how good your eyesight, we all struggle to read through tears. By making the font bigger, you can still see it through those tears.

Thirdly, only print your words on the first two thirds of the page. This stops you dropping your chin to your chest, and muffling your words.

Fourthly, focus on something on the wall at the back of the room (there is often a clock there). This prevents you looking directly at someone whose emotion affects you.

Fifthly, mark places in your words to take a deep breath. It is very common to chunter through and fail to stop for a proper breath. By putting in a reminder to breathe, you will take a deep breath and send oxygen around your body, which will help to still any rising emotion.

Finally, always have a last rehearsal the evening before, and read each word individually. This makes it sound very stilted and weird, but it slows you down. If you read it a final time, at normal speed, then you will naturally speed up when you are in front of everyone. By reading it very slowly at your final practice, you only speed up to your normal speed.

No one has any expectations of you when you speak at a service. Emotion is almost expected. Everyone will be patient, and understanding, if you need to pause, regroup and just take your time. I am always just a step away, and will step forward to support you if I feel that you need it. This can simply be a hand on your arm, or it could be a hug and a reminder to breathe.

It is very important that I have a copy of what you are going to say, in advance. This allows me to rehearse it, so that I can step in if you are poorly, or just decide that you can’t speak on the day. It also allows me to introduce your piece in the right way. We prevent duplication through the service, and my family always signs off a copy of the full script 48 hours before the service. We are also, often, tied to a slot time, so by having a copy of your words, then I can ensure that we keep within the time limit.

It is really important that you stick to the agreed words. I never want my families to have anything said that they aren’t expecting. I call them ‘huh’ moments, and they can occur when someone says something really lovely, but unexpected, and it causes the family members to take a sharp breath, and be overwhelmed by emotion. My aim is always for my families to be able to just sit through the service and drift in and out, never having to worry if they aren’t listening intently, as they already know every word that will be spoken. They already have enough to deal with, so the gentler I can make the service for them, the better.

It is a huge privilege to speak at a service, but it definitely isn’t easy. Even now, as someone who does it every single week, the raw emotion of speaking at the service of a friend, or family member, is completely different, and I always have to take those six pieces of advice myself, to help me to get through, and do the very best that I possibly can.


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