Words For A Funeral? Never Underestimate The Power In A Story


What kind of story are you telling yourself - about you?

Peter Billingham Funeral Celebrant writes on how stories are critical when writing words for a funeral.

Are you the director and leading actor in an epic story?

What if how we told stories about ourselves really mattered?

What if the way we tell stories about ourselves to others could have a significant impact on understanding the meaning of our lives?

What is our story going sound like as one day it’s told over our coffins?

Sombre thought.

How we tell our story to ourselves and others, can have a significant impact on our life. This blog post on writing words for a funeral explains how.

It could be a traditional funeral in a church or crematorium. It might be at a memorial service following a direct cremation. A eulogy or tribute is a common part of remembering someone's life. Writing those words for a funeral can be difficult and challenging.

The root of the word eulogy in Greek means - good speech - praise about the person that has died. How that funeral eulogy is told can have an incredible impact on the family of the person that has passed away.

Sometimes I hear people say a funeral that didn't help them. They say things like, "That sounded nothing like the person I loved and I knew." It's what I call a "sinner-saint - saint-sinner" confusion. In describing a person as something or someone they are not.

While a eulogy is not a speech to castigate or criticise. (I've heard many that do.) It needs to be authentic to the life of the person. Making someone out to be something they are not, leaves people feeling inward that something was not quite right. I also believe it doesn't help start to deal with the feeling of loss they feel either. No life is all perfect in the person or the personality. How you frame the real person has to be fitting, respectful and above authentic.

When you write a eulogy as a story, I am learning, you can do that with respect and meaning, and authenticity.

Telling the right kind of story helps when writing words for a funeral.

All humans love stories. We all end up as stories anyway. As Mitch Albom writes, "Sharing tales of those we've lost is how we keep from really losing them."

Scripting, and presenting the words for a funeral, as a story is important. Now families want to have a personal celebration of the life of the loved one they have lost. But, it's even more important than that. Psychology is developing new ways of understanding how stories are part of the human condition. And how stories give us meaning and help us to understand our lives.

For me, I am discovering that writing eulogies as a story can help us. Not only to understand more the life of our loved ones but even how understanding their story helps with the feelings of loss. I'm not an expert on the science of Narrative psychology. But it’s what I see, and what I hear. What people write about how they feel following a service where I have been a funeral celebrant. In telling the story of a life the best it is driving me to understand more how this could help families I work with in the future.

What is Narrative Psychology?

Theodore R. Sarbin from the University of California described it as the "storied nature of human conduct." In other words, how we deal with the experience of our life and the lives of others we do it best by telling stories and listening to the stories of others.

Could that be true?

I don't know about you, but I love to hear other people's stories. From what happened on the way to work, to the moment life changed forever on a single decision taken in a moment. It fascinates me.

"You'll never guess what happened to me!"

You can't help but say, "What?"

Narrative psychology, yet, takes that further. What happens in our lives and experiences becomes filled with meaning and understanding. And it’s done through stories. Telling stories helps us articulate life in a meaningful way.

Let’s Avoid A Wikipedia Biography In A Eulogy

There is a fascinating article on the subject in The Atlantic Magazine Online. "Life's Stories - How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human."

Julie Beck quotes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

"Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality." She goes on to say, "In the realm of narrative psychology, a person's life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally. How they pick them apart and weave them back together to make meaning."

So many eulogies I hear are "a Wikipedia biography" type of eulogy. A list of where they were born, what they did at school, where they worked and who they married and the family they had. There is nothing about the epic story of their lives contained in those words for a funeral. What a shame. With more time and effort spent in asking better questions, and listening deeper. Then writing with those ideas in mind, the eulogy could be so much more. More importantly, could it help the family understand more that life? I believe that it can, and it helps sometimes to come to terms with the loss and grief that follows the death of someone you love.

As Julie Beck continues:

"This narrative (a persons life story) becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is. A life story doesn't just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they'll become, and for what happens next."

What if it's not the person who is in the story telling the tale? But someone outside the story telling what has happened?

Writing a eulogy as an epic story.

In narrative psychology, a person's life story becomes a form of identity as how they choose to reflect on, integrate and tell the facts and events of their life. It not only reflects but also shapes, who they are. So as a funeral celebrant there is an opportunity to reflect that truth when we tell the story of a life through the words we write for funerals.

Dan McAdams describes how these personal narratives develop across our lives. They develop as we pass through three stages.

These three stages are - Actor - Agent - Author.

Stage one of the three levels is Actor - this is where we act and react at the moment, very much how we are as children. The actor emerges early in our development in the form of temperament. As a child, we take part in life, but we don't have many plans how we will do so.

The second level is different. The Agent emerges towards the end of early childhood. Its when as children we become more independent and goal-directed. As we experience a feeling of being able to exert control over behaviour, and environment. We become more aware that we have a past and a future. And we may have choices about the destinations our lives might take.

The highest level is that of Author. The author self is when we become aware of our actions and choices and start to direct the story of our lives.

Kate C. McLean is from Western Washington University. In writing about Mcadams theories she put it this way.

"The life story, or narrative identity, is a story of how the person came to be the person she currently is: how did I get here, who am I, and where am I going? There are many experiences in a life, but only some are remembered, and only some of those are particularly salient and connected to self-understanding. Beginning in adolescence it is the job of the individual to select the events that can be strung together to create a narrative arc of one's life, and in so doing, constructing that story brings a sense of coherence, integration, and purpose to the individual."

This is a critical understanding.

What narrative psychology is suggesting is that when we tell these personal stories they provide unity, purpose, understanding and meaning into our lives. This is when we tell the story to ourselves. What about when our story is told by others?

Role of an Annalist?

I want to add to those three levels another. Though not a level experienced by the individual, but to add to that list Annalist. One who compiles and chronicles events - the annals of someone's life. That role - Annalist, could be the funeral celebrant who writes the words for a funeral as a story of the person's life. Writing a story rather than that list of "Wikipedia biography" facts.

Narrative psychology is about the story we tell ourselves who we are. Sometimes those stories are very different from the stories we tell others about ourselves! While we live as the author, we can still direct the remaining chapters and pages of our life story.

And Now The End Is Near - Facing Final Curtains

But what about when that final full stop of our lives is done?

Then it's not the story we tell ourselves or the story of our lives we tell others, but others telling the story of us and our life that will matter.

Being the role of a funeral celebrant is one of great responsibility and honour. That is why I am grateful to be working in this vocation as a funeral celebrant. As I study and understand more the critical importance of storytelling the story of a life at a funeral is taking on new significance.

Narrative psychology is a fascinating subject that I am enjoying learning about more. How we arrange the individual chapters of our lives helps us understand who we are. Maybe even understanding better the lives of those we have lost in helpful ways.


What is the story that you tell yourself - about you?

What is the story of you that you tell others about yourself?

What will be the story of you that others will tell about you in the future?

One day, I would want someone to tell my story with a narrative arc. The highs, the lows, the good, the bad and the ugly, for that is the story of my life. That is who I am. I'm not the accumulation of Wikipedia biography facts, to be regurgitated dryly. For my faults and failures, successes and achievements, love and grace, I'm me.

This is me.

That's the story I want someone to tell.

What about you?


Are you at this page because your need someone to write the words for a funeral for someone you love? I hope that it is a long time in the future when you might need me to help your family.

Unfortunately, that may not be the case and that is why you are visiting this page today. I want to help you plan the funeral service or write a eulogy.

Please contact me either by phone on 07788404240 or email me info@memorablewords.co.uk I will do my very best to bring together everything that you need to celebrate the life of a loved one.

Do you need me to write a eulogy for you? Please look at the eulogy writing services that I offer.

Please click on the image below to download a Contact Card to keep in a safe place should you need Peter Billingham as a funeral celebrant. Either call Peter direct or give the card to your Funeral Director.

Peter Billingham Funeral Celebrant Contact Card

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