Famous eulogies are similar to eulogies for non-famous people: they are a spoken remembrance speech meant to pay tribute to a loved one. Eulogies, by their nature, are full of emotion and often tears. They are very often delivered by loving family members and friends in the relative privacy of a place of worship which makes them, by default, private.
But some eulogies are delivered in front of news cameras and paparazzi photographers, presidential historians and religious leaders. Some of those eulogies, the ones delivered for household name celebrities and political figures, are public.
Eulogies are all remarkable because they memorialize the life of someone who was loved. But not all famous eulogies are remarkable in the way that great speeches are remarkable. The same can be said of eulogies delivered for famous people.
There are some, however, that people return to as examples of remarkable eulogies. This is because those eulogies touched something in so many people that they became part of our common language when we talk about grief. We want to share a few excerpts and examples, with observations you can consider when you have to write a eulogy.
Famous Eulogies in History
Jim Henson’s eulogy was delivered by Frank Oz. Jim Henson, of course, created The Muppets and Frank Oz is an actor, puppeteer, and filmmaker. They worked together on The Muppets television show; Frank was Bert to Jim’s Ernie.
In his eulogy, Frank shares an experience of working on Saturday Night Live with Jim. Jim asked him to pose nude for photos and while Frank was confused, he trusted Jim and did what he asked. Later, Jim gave Frank a personally created gift that made clear why he’d asked Frank to pose for those photos.
It seems an odd thing to talk about in a eulogy, but what Frank Oz did was special. He not only told a personal, somewhat vulnerable story; but he did so to illustrate one of his friend’s most amazing attributes: his generosity of time and how he showed love by making things for people.
The lesson in this eulogy is to tell the stories that might seem hard to tell. Be specific: Frank describes Jim as silly but also describes the “high whine” of his laugh. Don’t just say someone was funny; describe their smile, their laugh, how they giggled like no one else.
Famous Celebrity Eulogies
When Cher delivered a eulogy for her ex-husband Sonny Bono, she offered both tears and jokes. She reminisced about how they met and confessed to lying about her age: she was 16, but told him she was 18. She didn’t sugarcoat their separation; she mentions it specifically but focused on what she admired about him, even after they parted ways.
The lesson in this eulogy is to embrace each part of your loved one’s life. No one’s life is perfect. If it’s possible (and we realize it won’t always be possible), invite those who were part of your loved one’s life to speak or to attend their service. At one point, they were important to each other. Honoring that is also a way of honoring the experiences that made your loved one the person you loved.
When Charles Spencer delivered the eulogy for his sister, Princess Diana, he did so for a worldwide audience. Her death was sudden and tragic and shocking, and the entire world grieved together through television screens.
Her brother acknowledged this. He talked about her presence in the world, the great humanitarian and philanthropic work she did, the place she held in England’s Royal Family.
But he also talked about his sister. He talked about her sense of humor (mischievous) and how she’d double over with laughter. He talked about her keen intuition and her strong sense of truth, how honesty was important to her and guided her through life. He acknowledged that people wanted to rush to canonize her memory, but advised that there was no need. That the life she lived, the person she was, was enough.
What we can learn from this eulogy is to address the elephants in the room. There is no getting around certain truths and there is power–and compassion–in speaking them for others to hear. Another lesson is that everyone can be humanized, even the most famous. She wasn’t just a celebrity or a princess; she was a daughter, a sister, a mother. People loved her and her brother made it clear that she could be both: an idol and a normal human.
Famous Political Eulogies
When Oprah eulogized Rosa Parks, she took us back to her childhood thoughts: “I remember my father telling me about this colored woman who had refused to give up her seat. And in my child’s mind, I thought, “She must be really big.” I thought she must be at least a hundred feet tall…”
Oprah also tried to imagine what strength it took for Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat in a time and place that was defined by racism. Oprah didn’t assume or try to shape the narrative; she simply wondered. She questioned. She gave thanks for the actions of one woman that helped pave the way for others.
In this eulogy, Oprah reminded us that we can honor someone without knowing every detail of a story. We can focus on what someone did rather than how they did it. We can talk about how someone made us feel, what someone taught us by their words and actions.
Taking Inspiration from Famous Eulogies
We don’t have to model eulogies of other people, no matter how famous the person may be. But listening to or reading eulogies that have touched so many people can help inspire us when we might be feeling a loss for words. Listening to someone praise and memorialize someone they admire can help us shift perspective from grief to celebration (take Eric Idle’s eulogy for George Harrison, for instance), letting us sprinkle a bit of levity into a memorial that is still heartfelt.
No matter which eulogies inspire you, remember that what matters most is that you express how your loved one was unique, and how much they meant to you.