A Gentleman's Guide to Delivering the Proper Eulogy
There's an old Seinfeld stand up bit where he pointed that most people's number one fear is public speaking. That we're more afraid of it even than we are of dying. Which means that when people go to a funeral, they'd rather be the one in the casket than the one getting up in front of everyone to give the eulogy.
I bring this up because I just delivered my second one. The first was for my sainted mother, almost 20 years ago. As the youngest of five and clearly Irene's pride and joy, as the cutest and smartest and every bit the good boy she always told me I was, I decided to jump on the grenade. Mainly due to the fact that by that point I'd been talking in front of audiences for over 20 years. But also because if I'm asked to talk about the kindest woman I've ever known, in whose arms I learned that pure love exists in this world, I'm like Donkey from "Shrek." It's getting me to shut up that's the trick.
You can appreciate that, while her remembrance was easy to write, it was an extremely emotional thing to get through. Afterwards, one of my brother's thanked me by saying, "Words are your gift." Which has always stuck with me. One, because it's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me. And also, because it drove home the fact that I have nothing else to offer. The rest of my siblings and their spouses are gifted at building, creating, woodcarving, arts, crafts, music, singing. Whereas, more often than not, I can string sentences together in American English. So any time the opportunity presents itself, I have take advantage. Otherwise I get exposed as the guy who showed up empty-handed, is out-drinking everyone else, and who hasn't left the buffet table. Think of everyone else as the ones who brought the gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, and all I can do is drum. And I can't do that either. So I talk whenever asked.
And I was asked. By my mother-in-law. To deliver what the Catholic Church refers to as the Reflection at her funeral Mass. The end had been coming for quite some time for her, and she was very specific about what she wanted. The Irish Rose was to sing, and I was to speak. And as I've been saying since I first came into her world - in fact, what I said at the podium that morning - is my mother-in-law didn't "ask" for things in the classical sense. She didn't make requests in the way we commonly use the term. It was never like "Hey, on your way back from the kitchen would you mind grabbing …?" or "If it's not too much trouble, could you …?" or "Can you do me a favor and …?" She just had that way about her that compelled you to do what she wanted you to do. It's only natural for you to ask, "Or else what?" But I can't answer that. Because I never wanted to find out.
Here's a story that makes the point. Back in the early days of my being a part of this family, so long before talking about the Patriots was my job, I used to give my infinitely patient Irish Rose a speech about how there are 16 games a season, each of which is about three hours long. That made for 48 hours a year I did not want to be accountable for my whereabouts. To be clear, most of those hours would be spent at home on the couch. But if I chose to watch it at the bar with my friends or at my brother's house or what have you, that was my prerogative. And please do not make plans for me during those times, because I would be unavailable. And she understood completely. Until one time when my beloved father-in-law were settling in for the kickoff of the Week 1 game against the Dolphins. Her mother sent her in to deliver the news we were needed outside. To dig out the leaves and pine needles that were covering up the storm drain in front of their house. By the time we'd finished the chore and got back inside, we'd missed 24 points scored in a game where Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino combined for 900 yards and nine touchdowns. That was the sway this woman held her family in. Including me. But the important thing is, we saved their section of Cape Cod from the post-diluvial flood that would've swept it into the Atlantic with the next rainstorm.
So this was a far different task than speaking at my own mother's service. Not that we didn't love one another. We were just very different cats. She grew up on the border of The Country Club in Brookline, where they host US Opens, including this upcoming one. I grew up within bike ride's distance of the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, where I once saw a local TV cowboy named Rex Trailer put on a show where he put a cigarette in my 9-year-old neighbor's mouth and cracked it out with a bullwhip. (True story. Those were different times.) I have a specific voice that I always use when I quote my mom, and it's pure thick Boston accent. The one I always used for my mother-in-law was Judge Smails' wife from "Caddyshack." But we found common ground with our shared, unconditional love for her youngest daughter. Over the last couple of years as her visits to the hospital in Boston increased and I would drive her in if I was available, we spent quite a bit of time alone together, talking. And she confided in me that she was most grateful for the way her daughter and I have always treated each other. Which was as gratifying as anything I've ever heard save the time Mr. Kraft told me, "Please. Call me RKK." I'll take both of those to the grave.
As a family cousin put it, he's never met two such opposite people be able to get along as well as we did. And I replied that I did what I was told, and that way nobody got hurt. But added that she went from thinking that Barstool Sports was, and I quote, "Pornography," to being totally supportive when I went full time here. Who was, in fact, proud of this job. That kind of evolution is incredibly rare in someone of her age and upbringing. Especially when the person is your son-in-law and part of his job is making blogs out of Kate Beckinsale's Instagram posts.
But for all of that connection we'd somehow forged, this was going to be a lot more heavy lifting than my eulogy from 20 years ago. First because the Church was giving me a five-minute time limit. Seriously, I haven't had to do a Tight-5 since my last Open Mic show at Nick's Comedy Stop. Second, I could never really claim to know, this woman. Not in the way you know a person when they raised you. My perspective is permanently that of someone who married her daughter.
So for this, I needed to devise a set of guidelines. Rules of engagement that would help me through this one, and any other "reflections" I might have to deliver. Some universal principals that can help others facing the same challenges I just did.
A Gentleman's Guide to the Proper Eulogy:
Rule 1: Steer Into the Skid. Nobody's perfect. Not you, not anyone your speaking to, and not the dearly departed. So no one wants to hear a hagiography. Nobody can relate to a saint, so remind them that the person your talking about was a human being. I don't mean turn it into a Comedy Central Roast with you as Roast Master General Jeff Ross. But some good natured kidding about their flaws and foibles coming from a place of love and respect is welcome in an otherwise excruciatingly tense event. There's an obscure Bill Murray movie called "The Razor's Edge" where a friend dies and he delivers a rant about what a disgusting slob he was when he ate. And in reality, that speech was about John Belushi. By no means should you go that far. But our imperfections and our shortcomings are what make us not only interesting, but connect us to each other. It makes us relatable, even to non-relatives. In my mother-in-law's case, I acknowledged the obvious, that I and her daughter were performing at her funeral because we were too intimidated to say no to her. While a congregation who knew her nodded. Because they understood.
Rule 2: Mix in a Couple of Laughs. This is a corollary to Step 1. Again, you're not taping a Netflix special. And don't expect them to be rolling in the aisles. You should be happy to just get a polite, collective smile. But if it's at all possible - and obviously we can rule out children or victims of violence - genuine, sincere humor is more than appropriate. It's essential. A little self-deprecation is always a nice place to start, because no one's bothered about it when you're the butt of the joke. By way of example, one of my best friends was delivering the eulogy for a neighbor who lived well into his 90s. At some point, an old lady who was an altar server walking behind him took a spill onto the floor. So he improvised, "And even at his age, he still had women falling for him." Boom. Mic drop. I'm jealous he got the chance and not me. In fact, you might want to stage an old lady taking a digger for just this reason and you're home free.
Rule 3: Skip the Resume. I've always thought it was weird that a person's obituary always begins with what they did to earn money. I mean sure, it's a great opening sentence when the deceased won a Nobel Prize or walked on the moon or was a Golden Girl. But when you've got just so much space to sum up a life, we don't need to hear that Ethan was one of the best systems analysts in the business and few people if ever could adjust an auto claim like Tracy. I'm friends with guys I've known since elementary school and couldn't tell you what they do for work. I just have a vague understanding that they do, in fact, go somewhere for 8-10 hours a day and draw a paycheck, but what that is is irrelevant to who they are. Ask me who their Fantasy League QB-WR hookups were in 2004, and I'm your guy. And I'd rather hear the speaker talk about how they managed to get Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison on the same team than their job.
Rule 4: No Roadside Memorials. I mean this metaphorically. With all due respect to anyone who's ever felt the need to comfort themselves by putting stuff at an accident scene where someone lost their life, focusing on the place and circumstances of someone's death is grim and unhealthy. Humans have walked the Earth for tens of thousands of years. Every place is spot where someone died at some point. If we put wooden crosses, teddy bears and basketballs at the site where everyone breathed their last breath, you'd never be able to get your Doordash. Same with paying verbal tribute to someone at their funeral. We know they died. We need a break from thinking about how they died. No matter whether they nobly battled a disease or heroically gave their life helping others. We want to hear about the previous 30,000 or so days where they didn't die. Talking about the death is like discussing Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak and focusing on that 57th game where he got robbed on two line drives and took the 0-fer. Accentuate the positives.
Rule 5: Be Extemporaneous. As much as possible, that is. Limit how much you write out. Give yourself bullet points, refer to them as few times as you can, if at all. I acknowledge that's easier said than done. We elect imbeciles to high office who can't speak a coherent sentence that's not scrolling in front of them on a teleprompter. But you're not a fifth grader reading your report about sharks in front of the class. No one's grading you. Nor are you Lincoln at Gettysburg and all your words will be chiseled in granite someday. To some extent or other, you knew this person. Talk about the way in which you knew them. Be grateful you knew them. And grateful for the opportunity to tell people what they meant to you. Even if, like the average person, you'd rather be the guest of honor at the funeral service than the person doing the talking.
The good news is that some day it WILL be your funeral. So you can relax and let someone you chose take care of the hard part. Just make sure you show them this handy guide, and it will be smooth sailing for them and you. That way, dying won't be the only easy part.
RIP, Nana. And thank you for everything.