How to write a funeral tribute

As a celebrant, many people tell me that they would really like to write a funeral tribute for their loved one but they don’t know how to go about it. So this post is a round up of the advice I give them!

How to write a funeral tribute ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

Writing a funeral tribute can be a beautiful and loving last thing you can do for someone. That said, please don’t feel pressurised into writing one if you don’t want to. Some people feel that writing isn’t really their strength, and they don’t want to have the stress at an already emotionally challenging time. That’s fine. If you have a good funeral celebrant, they will spend time with you learning all about your loved one, and they will create a eulogy or tribute on your behalf instead. You should get full editing rights so that you know it reflects your person just how you want it to.

Another point to add is that, even if you do write the funeral tribute, you don’t have to deliver it if you don’t want to. Again, liaise with your celebrant and tell them how you are feeling. You might decide that you definitely want them to read your words on your behalf, and that’s fine. Or, you might like to make your mind up in the moment, and wait to see how you feel on the day. That’s also fine – your funeral celebrant can be on hand to take over at any time, so you have a psychological ‘safety net’.

Here are some hints and tips on how to write a funeral tribute, whether you want to read it or you want your celebrant to read it:

5 tips on writing a funeral tribute:

1. Remember it’s a funeral tribute, not an English assignment!

You are writing about your personal memories at a time of raw emotion, and that’s tough enough. The reason that many people feel further daunted by writing a tribute is that they imagine their old English teacher leaning over them with a red pen, or think about the times they’ve had to present something at work and needed to wow their audience. 

This isn’t a time to worry about entertaining people, being judged, or doing it ‘right’. What is right is what’s right for you and the person you’re writing the tribute about. There is no template needed. So try not to write it like a formal speech, imagining a faceless audience. Instead, if you’re stuck for knowing how to start, try writing it to your loved one, as if it were a letter. This helps to make it more intimate and personal, and reduces the ‘audience’ in your head down to just you and the person you love. You can always change it to the third person later if you want to, but this trick helps you to relax into writing and be more you.

2. Think of five words to describe your loved one

Think of around 5 words you’d use to describe your loved one. These can be your main points for your funeral tribute and you can find stories, memories or examples to illustrate this quality in them. 

For example, if one of your words is ‘generous’, you might then elaborate on that with a tale of the time they came out at 3am because your car had broken down and you were scared. Or you could remind everyone how they loved to treat friends to meals out or rounds of drinks (you might even want to refer to some of those people who might be there). Spend some time thinking about what made them generous and note down all your thoughts: how they would spend time with people they loved and really listen to them; how they would give the shirt off their back to someone in need; how they volunteered at the local cat rescue… Then you can do that with your other adjectives too, and really build a picture of your person. 

3. You’re not writing their biography!

Remember you’re writing their funeral tribute, not their biography. The idea is to reflect who they really were and what they were like. You want to evoke feelings and memories, not read out a CV. So try not to cram your tribute unnecessarily with dates and facts, but show their personality and values. So if he was a teacher for 30 years, for example, talk about the children he inspired in that time, the love he had for his subject, or how he couldn’t walk out the door without someone calling ‘Hi Mr Parker!’ It’s so much more evocative than his career progression and the schools he worked at (although that might feature). There’s no need to write it in date order either, if you don’t want to.

4. Your loved one through your eyes

Whilst a funeral tribute is about them, not you, you can make it personal to you too. Talk about your first impressions of them, for example, or what it was like to have them as your parent or friend. Make it about them, but through your eyes. It can be beautiful to go to a funeral and learn something new about someone that you knew well. If they were your schoolfriend, for example, your tales will help their colleagues, teammates or partner see the person they recognise so well but from a slightly different angle. It’s good to celebrate the multi-faceted nature of people.

5. Don’t ‘whitewash’

Life – and people – are never perfect, and, whilst a funeral tribute should celebrate your loved one’s great qualities and good memories, it doesn’t have to avoid the grittier side at all costs.

If some kind of hardship is an important part of their story, for example, a difficult childhood, health problems, or relationship issues, then you can gently nod to it if necessary. You don’t have to go into great detail, but you don’t have to pretend everything was rosy if it wasn’t! For example, ‘As you may know, his lengthy spells of depression meant Bob had more than his fair share of down days. However, his life was considerably brightened by spending time with his friends and family, who were like sunshine through the dark clouds.’

How long should a funeral tribute be?

A lot depends on whether yours will be the only tribute, or one of many. It will also depend on whether you have a ‘timeslot’ for the ceremony or you can be more relaxed. 

If you are writing a tribute that will be one of a few during the funeral, liaise with the other tribute writers and the celebrant for guidance on timings. It’s also good to check up that you’re not all thinking about telling the story of the unfortunate but hilarious incident involving a Roman gladiator costume, too much alcohol and a police officer…

If your tribute will be the main one at the funeral, a rough guideline would be to aim for 8-12 minutes – enough to paint a gorgeous picture of your loved one but not so long that people’s attention wanders. Also be warned that you will almost certainly need more time than you think, as reading it out in the chapel will be different from reading it to yourself in the kitchen. I reckon on about 130-150 words per minute, so for a 10 minute funeral tribute, you should allow around 1400 words. But again, liaise with the celebrant, and any others involved in the ceremony. 

Good luck, you’ll make them proud!

PS if you’re looking for a funeral celebrant in the West Sussex area, do get in touch.