What is a Eulogy?

Leading the mourning.

Leading the mourning.

Did you know that eulogies often were written in high praise or commendation of a person? Today, eulogies most often are associated with funerals, but the word derives from the Greek eu, meaning a combination of “good” or “well” and “true” or “genuine” and logy, or a termination of nouns referring to writing. The eulogia in the Greek Orthodx Church was a blessing. Today, the eulogy is known as a speech or writing in honor of a deceased person.

Before the death connotation, the elegiac was made popular in Greece. The elgiac refers to a composition with a Classical meter of two lines, making it a couplet. The first line is dactylic hexameter, followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. This type of poetic form dates back nearly as far as the epic, and one of the greatest first elegiac poets was Philitas of Cos. Often, the elegiac poetic form praised a person who was alive at the time of the writing.

This Hellenistic poetic form spread throughout ancient Europe, and Sextus Aurelius Propertius, an Italian who died about 15 BC wrote four books of elegies in Latin, totaling 92 poems. One example:

Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis,
contactum nullis ante cupidinibus.

“Cynthia first captivated wretched me with her eyes,
I who had never before been touched by Cupid.” (I.1.1-2)

Over time, the elegy became a poem written in mourning. The eulogy, however, was transformed from a speech or writing in praise of a person or thing to a tribute to a deceased individual, and it never became a poem. Eulogies still can be delivered at births and at weddings, so the term can be very confusing. This is a list of things that are not eulogies:

  • Eulogies are not elegies, as eulogies are speeches, whereas elegies are poems.
  • Eulogies also are not obituaries, which are published biographies that recount the life of the dead.
  • Eulogies also are not obsequies, the latter referring generally to rituals that surround funerals.
  • Eulogies are not dirges, which are mournful songs that express grief.
  • Eulogies are not encouraged by every religion. Catholic priests are not permitted to present a eulogy in place of a homily for the deceased during a funeral Mass.

This is what a eulogy is about:

  • Eulogies can praise a living person (during celebrations such as birthdays, weddings, retirements, etc.), but many people today do not associate the term “eulogy” with the living.
  • Eulogies often are spoken to the living who are severely ill or close to death in order to express words of love and gratitude before that person dies.
  • Eulogies most often are delivered by family members or close friends during a funeral.
  • Eulogies also can be called a “panegyric,” or a formal public speech, or “(in later use) written verse, delivered in high praise of a person or thing, a generally highly studied and discriminating eulogy, not expected to be critical. It is derived from Greek meaning a speech ‘fit for a general assembly.'”

Do you need to write a eulogy for a deceased loved one? Don’t panic – you don’t need to be a poet to write a eulogy. In the next post, you’ll learn how a eulogy is constructed and the content you might use for that speech.

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