Commemorating a parent: Eulogies and obituaries

My friends are losing their parents, and each has been concerned with the rituals of farewell. Carolyn arranged for pipers to play at her mother's funeral, in honour of her Scottish heritage. Kate and her brother read excerpts of letters they had received from their mother over the years, funny, wise, and occasionally scolding. Alice's father's colleagues provided warm reminiscences in the chapel of the university where he taught for his career.

Each of these gestures reflected the love those gathered felt for the parent. 

Joanne faces a different task. If she had once loved Maxine, the feeling was destroyed by instability and her mother's consistent inability to nurture. Because I witnessed some of these behaviours, I'd say Maxine's mothering was about a -3 on a 10-point scale. When Maxine died suddenly, a continent away, Jo felt only relief.

But soon, Jo must stand in front of family and close friends to deliver a eulogy.  She has decided to acknowledge the chaos and hardship that led her mother to terrorize her children and family, to say "she did the best she could", then read a poem (to be determined, probably Wordsworth, her mother liked the Romantics), and leave it at that.

The obituary was easier, a précis of facts, history, kin: Maxine lived through the Blitz, then emigrated to Canada, overjoyed to hear that our post-war rationing allotted each adult a half-pound of butter per week.

In my parents' time, you did not "speak ill of the dead". Memorial services sidestepped human flaws, the homilies of faith papered over unspoken pain. The real story often came out when family gathered to dispense of possessions, or at the wake.

When she read the obit to me, I thought of a noted British obituary-writer of the last century, who was known as master of the euphemism. "Possessed a keen intelligence" really meant "pompous know-it-all", "devoted to his work" meant "boring drudge", and "had a large social circle" meant "anything in a skirt".

But in the last decade, I have noticed an increasing tendency toward more candid obituaries and eulogies. An obituary may note, for example, that the deceased "gave her opinion even if we didn't want to hear it", or even mentions darker qualities or struggles. The notices are also reflecting social change; today, I read the first acknowledgment I have seen of a "physician-assisted death", of a man who journeyed to Switzerland for his choice. (For an example of unusual obituaries, see "Nine of the Most Incredible Obituaries Ever Written"; click on the person's name to read.)

Don't we all wish that one day, our surviving family and friends commemorate us tenderly, summoning precious memories? But we reap what we sow, and now that a frank, full assessment is increasingly common, others will speak of us as they think we really were.

"She is at peace now", those who offer condolences often say, but Jo says she too will feel peace, once she has said goodbye with respect and sadness, and in truth.


Susan said…
This is a difficult issue and one that I will have to face. My mother would also rank a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 when it comes to nurturing. At the same time, I'm not willing to put that assessment into writing in an obituary. I AM planning on confiding this in the minister who may well deliver a eulogy in her church, only to be assured that he will not wax eloquently about her mothering skills just assuming they were superb.I will ask him to say nothing of her as a mother. The rest of the family and my close friends already know about her lack of mothering skills, so there will be need to inform the public at large. I will write the obituary myself and it will include the interesting facts (she was a first generation American and grew up in an immigrant community on a farm in the Connecticut River Valley and loved the large horse drawn sleigh her family used for transportation during the winter.) as well as a litany of basic facts for future generations to refer to if they choose. . I think that most mothers DO their best when it comes to their children, but some are missing an essential something--either a character trait or perhaps something even more basic. I see no need to to air dirty linen at the time of death.
Susan said…
That should read, there will be NO need to inform the pubic at large. So much for proof reading.
Susan B said…
My mother didn't have a formal funeral or service, which frankly saved us this dilemma. Most who knew her during the later years of her life acknowledged that she was "difficult" at times. We kept the obituary simple.

My father was more complicated. As his oldest biological child, I was expected to speak at his service. He was not a bad parent, just a mostly disengaged one, especially after my parents' divorce. I spoke mostly about my childhood and how he'd helped instill a good work ethic and sense of responsibility, both of which have served me well (this is true). HIs two step-sons that spoke had spent much more meaningful times with him as adults, and had more fond memories to share.
materfamilias said…
I've given the eulogy at both my parents' funerals, and I did acknowledge the struggles my mother had with depression, the way her moods inevitably affected her parenting, although I did so in an overall context of marveling at how well she managed the demands of a very large family.
A problem I can see with "airing the dirty linen" as Susan, above, puts it, is that even in the same family, a parent can evoke three very different eulogies. Some siblings might always have got along famously with their father while others found the same man distant, even cruel. While the latter might feel they need to speak their truth at a funeral, doing so might be very hurtful to the former who are grief-stricken and vulnerable. I still flinch, three years later, when one of my sisters continues to bring up grievances against my mother (whose personality could be difficult, yes) -- this would have been unbearable in the immediate wake of her loss.
Such a provocative and thoughtful post -- I'll be very curious to follow this conversation. I suspect it may be a sensitive topic for many.
LauraH said…
What a difficult role to play for those who don't feel close to a parent or even dislike him or her. Thankfully I felt no need to speak at the memorial gatherings for either of my parents.
Duchesse, quite a feat to get birth and death in on your comments in the same week!

I loved the old dog's obituary. My black cat Renzo will be 20 in a few weeks so of course his days are numbered and we have to make sure he has the best possible exit when the time comes.

My father was well, a typical man of his time, but died when I was 15 so I had no say in the funeral, nor would I have wanted to. He died at about the same age I am now (he was a chain smoker). My mother lived to a very old age, too old... she should have died a few years earlier... vascular dementia at life's end? Many little strokes, not Alzheimer. Not as horrid as the -3 mum; on the contrary she was devoted, just extremely hypercritical and not at all loving. Relatively late I learned of the fear she lived in as a child. I think that if she had lived a generation later, she wouldn't have had children. The ceremony made me wince a bit, but it was about her, not me.

I've had much more say and involvement in the memorials to some close friends.
Araminta said…
You always introduce such interesting topics for discussion and this one addresses an important issue. It has been unusual in the past for there to be a eulogy at a British funeral, largely because of of the extreme discomfort that the English have about showing their emotions in public. But having become a North American I felt that I had to overcome the clergyman's resistance in order to speak at my mother's funeral when she died at the age of 95 a few years ago. It was important for me and for her memory to avoid the dismissal of her life as being "just a house wife". I felt that I owed it to her to speak of her extreme, if unacknowledged, intelligence, discipline and hard work. She belonged to a generation which culpably ignored the talents of women. She came from an insecure youth as the middle child of a war-widow in the aftermath of World War I and despite this achieved her ambitions - home ownership, financial security, essential support for her husband's career and the best of educations for her only child. It was a struggle with ill-heath over-ridden by an indomitable will. I was happy to be able to be able to make clear the extent of her achievement at the last.
I admire people who can get up in front of a crowd and read a is such an emotional time and with so many mixed emotions bubbling remain composed in quite a feat.
I appreciate honesty and some humour peppered into a one is perfect and life is full of challenges...I think it is more personal to speak frankly but take care not to belittle or be disrespectful to the deceased.

Like another commenter I was surprised to see a birth and death post within days of each other!
You do write about interesting topics!

DocP said…
I was stunned to read the very negative obituary of my former college professor, written by his children. I knew he was divorced, but had no idea of the circumstances. The obituary referred to the cause of the divorce being his unwillingness to routinely host for dinner and/or overnight, without prior notice, the underprivileged children his wife met through her volunteer work. He was described as a terrible person and unsupportive of her efforts to help those less fortunate. It was clear there was much unresolved anger about the patents' late life divorce, but it felt completely inappropriate. If one can't say something nice, just stick to the facts!
annie said…
May I say I can totally relate to the situation of Joanne and Maxine, my own mother being a -3 also. And I suddenly realized why my younger brother, who was in charge of my mother's service, disallowed any public comments, although he welcomed them for my father. While those of us who were not encircled to our mother's bosom are fully entitled to our feelings, yet I support "civility" in the public arena. We are to be lauded for our appropriate behavior and for keeping what's private, private.
Susan said…
I think Annie has posted exactly the sentiments that I hold. Let's keep (in public) what is private truly private. Our close family and friends know the details of our relationships with our parents, but it's really not pertinent information for others.

By the way, even though I am not English, I am not a big fan of eulogies given by close family members. Too often there are tears (or sobbing) and somewhat maudlin narratives which, I don't believe, serve the purpose of honoring a family member. This makes me a little glad that our church (The Episcopal Church) somewhat discourages personal eulogies.
Duchesse said…
Susan: That is •minus• three. I like your approach, for its honesty and essential respect.

unefemme: My mother's obituary was simple, which was her direct order. Thanks be! She had both extremely evident good qualities and faults, nothing was "average".

Araminta: You represent another wish, that of acknowledging a role that was routinely discredited, and thus, a life. I was touched by your persistence to honour her.

hostess: Nicely put, I think it's essential to capture the person's essence. If the deceased were not respectful to others during their lives, do you still feel they merit respect in death? I struggle with that and in situations in my family have defaulted to vague, hard-to-decipher statements.

DocP:Maxine made this man look like Mother Teresa. Jo's challenge was to somehow acknowledge her mother as a person, but she felt it would be deeply dishonest and in a sense, collusive with the abuse to say fake,'good things'. I certainly agree that petty score-settling has no place at a memorial.

lagatta: Those mothers often come from such backgrounds, marked by early years. Ah, dear Renzo... there should be an honour guard of elderly moggys from the neighbhourhood for him.

materfamlias: I agree that children, especially when a family spans as many years as yours, experience the same parents, but different people. My brother is 15 yrs older, and his eulogy introduced me to my father as a different man.

I met Maxine several times: I know what happened when I knew her, and before. The woman deserves respect as a human, but any more would be a stretch and it takes a bigger person to accord her any praise as a parent.

Duchesse said…
Annie: In Jo's case, the service will not be "in the public arena" as the public were not invited. The obituary is respectful, if not laudatory. The nature of Maxine's particular behaviours will be known to everyone at the funeral. They will not be reintroduced, but I understand Jo in her unwillingness to praise her mother's parental performance. It really was a devastating experience for both her and her sister.
Duchesse said…
Susan: A faith community imposes its own funeral customs; however, I like the idea of inviting those who wish to speak to do so. If a grieving person sobs, I wonder, why is it necessary to constrain them?
Madame Là-bas said…
Birth and death this week! We are definitely not all cut out to be parents! So many women probably married and bred because it was expected! My mother-in-law was an unwanted child sent to live with relatives and basically lacked any maternal instinct. My mother, on the other hand, regarded motherhood as her greatest accomplishment! That's a big order but my siblings and I have
certainly strived to be worthy. Your friend is right that her mother probably did the best that she could and probably deserves our compassion.
Duchesse said…
Mme: Compassion is the word. Jo has worked long and hard- years and years of therapy to have compassion for her mother, and more recently, to have compassion for herself.
Susan said…
Duchesse, you are right that each faith community has its own customs. I was just saying that I am somewhat relieved that my own discourages personal eulogies. Even though I am a somewhat emotional person, the sobbing makes me uneasy. That's just me and I may well be an outlier. And you are right, it is not necessary to constrain the grief-stricken. My own husband gave a eulogy for his father (in spite of Episcopalian guidelines ) which made me uneasy--only because it was driven by the immediate death and its causes (leukemia) rather than a reference to his father's whole life. (Can you tell that I am one difficult customer?)
Anonymous said…
I'm very lucky that both my mother and father were wonderful parents, in different ways. For my dad, we asked a close cousin of ours to say a few words...he and his siblings wrote a beautiful remembrance during their long ride from Michigan to Massachusetts. For my mom, my sister wrote the eulogy, but we asked my aunt to read it. We wanted her friends and family to hear the words. They already knew how much we loved her, and they all shared that love.

I had an aunt who was not a nice person, and no one spoke at her funeral. The sparse crowd spoke to the choices she had made in her life, and we didn't need to dwell on the burned earth she left behind. It was a very good lesson on the fact that you reap what you sow.
Pondside said…
I think I read the same obituary in the Globe and Mail. It was a loving and tender piece and alluded only briefly to the trip to Switzerland.
I don't know that 'baring it all' after a parent's death can be all that helpful. At some point we all have to look at ourselves, let some of that past go and take responsibility for the here and the now. Not everyone was mothered perfectly, but there's a lot of growing up between childhood and 60. Civility and the old 'if you can't say something nice...' go a long way.
Hummingbird5 said…
I do not plan to speak at either of my parents' memorial services. I admire those who do, but I am not comfortable speaking in front of groups, and I don't want to add performance anxiety to whatever else I am feeling at those moments. I have two siblings who love to speak and will do it well. But I am not them, so I am giving myself permission to sit quietly, contemplate my parents' lives,, and listen to what others might want to say.
Duchesse said…
Pondside: Yes, that's the one. The family included that detail and that's what counted, to me, that such decisions are openly acknowledged, when a family wishes to do so.

I did not intend to imply, that Jo would "bare it all". Rather, she will not praise her mother •as a parent•, will not say that she loved her, that there will be a huge hole in her heart, what a great example she was to her- or any such words. This is important to her and to her sister.

Hummingbird5: I agree speaking to one's assembled friends and family is not for everyone, and some funerals also include members of a congregation or even broader public, a sea of faces that can be daunting. One of my friends who felt that way played one of her father's favourite pieces of music, introducing it with only a brief sentence. The music did the speaking for her.
Eleanorjane said…
It's an interesting topic to discuss and one I may have to face at some point. My father is not a good father and I would really struggle to say something appropriately laudatory.

I was determined to speak at my mother's funeral and managed to get through without breaking down or even wobbling too much. I wanted to say publically how much I loved and respected her. My brother wrote a piece for another family member to read, my aunt spoke and several other people spoke spontaneously about mum and how much she meant to them. (In New Zealand, funerals usually have a open section when anyone who wants to speak can come up and say a few words).

My brother and I had to arrange her funeral (and pay for it, we discovered later!) as my parents' marriage had broken up in acrimonious circumstances. She had no organised religion so it was quite weird for me (a Christian) to try and plan a service that wasn't a service in the usual sense. We included a some of her favourite music (mostly Mozart) and a slide show of photos from her life. Overall, I think she would have been pleased.
Duchesse said…
eleanorjane: Many parents have different faiths, or none, in contrast to their children, so that accommodation is yet another task, and one that, should parents or other family make that known in advance, is so much easier than scrambling to put something together at a time of grief. It sounds like a beautiful memorial service.

Kristien62 said…
This is such a timely post. My mother passed away in 2014. She was a demanding and polarizing force in our lives. My brother, the youngest, is haunted by the chaos that was left by her passing. Her service was conducted by a priest who really didn't know her, but the eulogies were delivered by her grandchildren who were never aware of the
discord she sowed. She would have been uplifted by the praise of her grandchildren who viewed her as a loving, but quirky character. It saved us the dilemma of how to eulogize her.
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: A thoughtful, elegant solution. Jo has also asked her daughter to speak, and she will deliver an appreciative address, from her heart.

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