In this column, professional speechwriter Chandler Dean provides partly satirical, partly genuine “How To” advice focused on a hyper-specific subcategory of speeches—from graduation speeches to wedding toasts to eulogies, and all the rhetorical occasions in between.

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Writing is already hard when everything is fine. But often, things are bad. Sometimes, for example, someone has died. And as if that person’s loved ones haven’t suffered enough, they are soon subjected to an afternoon of inexperienced public speaking.

Fundamentally, the process of writing a eulogy is surreal. For any other life event where you have to give a speech, no one would ever encourage you to wait until that week to start writing.

But every once in a while, your friend is alive on Monday, you find out they’re gone on Tuesday, and you have to give remarks in front of everyone they knew on Friday. Moments like these are such a whirlwind; there’s almost not even enough time to freak out about the fact that you have to give a speech. But don’t worry, you’ll find a way.

In truth, being called on to draft a eulogy is the closest I’ve ever felt to my craft being an act of service.

It’s nice when someone gives a good speech at a wedding or graduation. But nothing compares to the emotional stakes of a eulogy. If done right, it has the power to heal, offer clarity and catharsis, and help people realize they’re not alone. It is the rare Google Doc that feels like a gift.

Your eulogy can’t make up for the pain of the loss. But you might have a chance to be the first person to make someone laugh, or smile, or trigger that pent-up ugly cry that has to come out before one can begin to move on. Here’s how.

Talk to other people who loved this person to remember what made them special.

Around this time last year, my high school friend Adam Elkhadem passed away at the age of twenty-six. Shortly afterward, I had the honor of being asked to speak about his life at his memorial service.

I cherished the opportunity, but I was also overwhelmed by it. How exactly was I going to talk about him? And it turned out that the best way to figure it out was by talking about him.

Before the funeral, a few friends who knew Adam gathered and swapped our favorite stories. Later, when I started to write his eulogy, I didn’t have to wrack my brain: I could start with things I had already said.

Before you start writing, it makes sense to talk to other people for a couple of reasons.

The first is that if you’re feeling destroyed, gathering in community is one of the best ways to build yourself back up. You cannot write a eulogy if you are in a fetal position in the bathtub. Or at least, I can’t. Maybe you’re more flexible than me.

Another reason is that most people have way more practice articulating themselves verbally than on the page.

If you start this process by opening up a blank Word document—or worse, if it’s been so long since you opened a Word document that you have to get through dual-factor Microsoft 365 authentication before you can open the Word document—you might get caught up trying to “write a eulogy” (hard, sad) instead of simply expressing what you loved most about your friend or family member (still hard, but beautiful and good).

Talking stuff out before you write stuff down is always a smart idea, but it can be especially helpful in disorienting, dispiriting times.

Ask yourself the big questions.

On a few occasions, I’ve been asked to help with someone else’s eulogy. (As in, a eulogy being delivered by someone else. Obviously, it’s always going to be a eulogy for someone else—unless I’m in big trouble.)

People are often surprised that someone would seek professional help for something so personal. But I take it to mean that the speaker deeply cares about getting this moment right. They feel there’s a gap between what they’re capable of expressing and how much this person means to them.

It’s a privilege to help bridge that gap. But to get it done, I have to rely on the part of a speechwriter’s job that many people don’t think about: the intake call.

When it comes to drafting speeches, just as important as being a good writer is being a good interrogator. Often, I’ll find myself with just thirty minutes on a Zoom to get enough information and sentiment out of the speaker to serve as the foundation for a draft.

For a eulogy, I’ve found the best way to start is completely open-ended: “Tell me about this person.” That tends to lead to the most organic conversation.

But there are a few other go-to questions that can be useful. And they double as good questions to ask yourself if you’re the one who has to speak:

  • When was the first time you met this person?
  • What did you admire about them?
  • What did they teach you?
  • In what ways would you like to be more like them?
  • What’s something you know about them that most people may not already understand?
  • How do you think they would want to be remembered?

If you’re feeling stuck, don’t overthink it: start writing exactly what you’re feeling.

In the week after Adam died, all I could do was think about him. The great gift that came from writing his eulogy was that I suddenly had an outlet for those thoughts. By the time I finished getting everything down on paper, I could feel a small measure of the weight of the grief exit my body.

So my advice to anyone who doesn’t know where to start is: start. Get any words on the page. If you’re more comfortable speaking than writing, consider recording a voice memo and starting from a transcription. Then, once you’re done being mortified by the number of “ums,” “uhs,” and “likes” you’ve been subconsciously saying all your life, you can get to the second-hardest part of writing, which is editing.

Once you have thoughts on paper, you may now overthink it until it’s under five minutes.

The last thing you want is for another person to pass away in the time it takes you to wrap up.

In all seriousness, if you’ve got multiple stories, pick the best one. You may think you’re doing your loved one a disservice by cutting your remarks short. But they would have wanted their friends and family to be happy—and what will make them happy is a timely opportunity to enjoy refreshments and use the restroom.

If need be, here’s a simple structure:

  • Introduce yourself and how you knew the person
  • Express what you think that person’s most remarkable quality was
  • Tell a story that reflects that quality
  • Share how you plan to honor your loved one going forward

If you’re worried this won’t be enough time to capture this person in their entirety, pay no heed:

You will never capture this person in their entirety. So do not try.

When my friend and mentor (and legendary McSweeney’s contributor) Brian Agler died in 2020, I had known him for less than two years. Still, he made an enormous impact on me. But it would have been insincere for me to write something that spoke to anything but my experience of the man.

So when the speechwriting firm where we both worked held an internal memorial service for Brian, I focused on what he meant to me specifically: he was an extraordinary speechwriter and humorist who taught me a lot.

The result was this metaphor:

“If West Wing Writers was an old-timey motorcycle… and Brian Agler was the driver… I humbly submit, that in the best of times, I was his sidekick in the cute little sidecar.”

I’m not saying this is the best sentence ever written, or even, in fact, a good one. But I do think it is a sentence that couldn’t have been written about anyone else, by anyone else. Perhaps because it shouldn’t have been.

Nevertheless, your job is not to provide an objective summary of this person’s life. You’re there to express what they meant to you, specifically. It’s okay if that’s just a cross-section of their identity.

Maybe you were their bowling buddy. Dude, don’t hold back. I wanna know about their double bowling life. Sounds fun.

Speaking of fun:

Don’t be afraid to be funny.

It may feel insensitive to make jokes. But it’s a celebration of life. People want comfort. If you can make them laugh, you might be able to make their day.

I would even suggest that a little playful mockery is appropriate. You don’t need to turn this into the Comedy Central Roast of Our Departed Angel. But if this person had quirks everybody knew about, it would be dishonest if those quirks weren’t reflected in tributes to them.

My (working-class, union-forged, chronically Alabaman) grandfather, for example, was careful with money—which is a nice way of saying “cheap,” which is a nice way of saying “really, really cheap.” He died when I was twenty-one, and I tried to both poke fun at that quality and frame it as a virtue:

“People made fun of Grandpa Walt for being cheap, but I think he was really focused on keeping things fair. Because he never hesitated to help somebody out when they needed it. But if there was handiwork to be done, he would insist on doing it himself instead of lettin’ some know-nothin’ mouth-breathin’ knucklehead charge you ten times what the damn work costs.”

Maybe you’re not feeling funny yourself—but was your loved one funny? Even once? If so, it’s the world’s easiest win to quote them. If they ever gave you the gift of joy, now’s your chance to pass it along to everyone else.

And this might sound like a bit, but I’m being completely serious: consider doing your best impression of them. If it’s even remotely accurate, it will resonate. If it’s not, then you’ll give people something to make fun of on the drive home.

Finally, even if you never have to deliver a full eulogy, you will certainly need to say something, someday, to someone who is grieving. One thought about that:

It may be hard to find the words. But avoid saying, “There are no words.”

Michael Jamin—a TV writer whose work and advice I admire—shared some powerful reflections last year about his experience eulogizing one of his best friends. He touched upon a cliché he saw repeatedly in Facebook comments after the tragedy: “There are no words.”

“Well-meaning people would say ‘there are no words,’ ‘words can’t describe…’ and I hated that. There are words. There are 170,000 words in the English language… You can figure out a way to put them in some kind of order so that it means something for somebody.”

This resonated with me. I get it: it may feel arrogant to think your words could achieve anything for a grieving person. But to say “there are no words,” or worse, “I can’t imagine how you must feel”—as I see it, it’s not deferential. It’s isolating.

Instead, what’s helped me when I’ve been grieving is knowing that as many people as possible are feeling what I’m feeling—even if it’s not exactly the same scale or shape.

Maybe you met my loved one only once and have just one sentence to share about your encounter. Maybe you have exactly one picture together that hasn’t been uploaded publicly before. Or a low-res screenshot of a text conversation from ten years ago. Doesn’t matter.

Every time I learn something new about a lost loved one, I can’t quite say that it’s like they’re alive again—but man, it’s still a beautiful feeling to discover that there is still more to discover.

There is one circumstance when you can say, “There are no words to describe this.” And that is if you discover some new freaky-looking insect species that nobody has named yet. But when it comes to human beings we love and cherish, you’ve got plenty of words to work with. Use them.