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5 Great Eulogies in Film

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

The only way to give a good eulogy is to really have known the dead. There’s not a set rhythm to them; it isn’t like a wedding where there are always vows. There may be prayers or no prayers; we might be graveside or at a wake far from any place of rest. The eulogy is a free-form tribute to the dead, and it arises from grief for a person one has known.

With that knowledge, a good example is key. If you haven’t had the displeasure of many live funerals in your life, there are great examples in cinema that can serve as instructions.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Following the death of Yondu, a space Fagan and violent step-father to bumbling human hero Star-Lord, a funeral happens in space. The surviving stepson must find a way to make the man who was his father when he had none, the man who showed him little mercy or comfort and nonetheless taught him how to be a man. When Yondu’s fellow Ravagers pay their final respects, even Rocket Raccoon must accept that the people Yondu had worked his whole life to alienate him loved him still. Star-Lord admits that his found father terrified him, beat him, and kept him on edge his whole life. And yet, he could also make peace with the old man:

“Yondu didn’t have a talking car but he did have a flying arrow. He didn’t have the beautiful voice of an angel but he did have the whistle of one. Both Yondu and David Hasselhoff went on kick-ass adventures and hooked up with hot women and fought robots. I guess David Hasselhoff did kind of end up being my dad after all, and it was you, Yondu. I had a pretty cool dad.”

Even someone we have complicated feelings about can be eulogized well.

4. Four Weddings and a Funeral

This one is a stone-cold tearjerker. Kicking off with calling a gay man’s lover his “close friend,” this is the Scots-accented eulogy to end them all. Matthew, the surviving man, tells stories about Gareth. “So very fat and so very rude,” the dead man is described, but also a great host with an enormous capacity for joy and drunkenness, as the “most splendid, replete, big-hearted and jolly bugger most of us ever met.”

Matthew reads from “Funeral Blues,” by W. H. Auden. If you need to make people cry with your words at a burial, this is a sure thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes us wonder what else is there, when love is gone.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

3. The Wrath of Khan

What love is there in the galaxy to rival that between James T. Kirk and Spock, his half-Vulcan science officer? Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship at the end of this epic saga of revenge and obsession. Starfleet is a space navy, after all, so the revels are kept brief.

Eulogizing Commander Spock as both his commanding officer and as a beloved friend, Kirk says of his fallen comrade: “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” Spock is laid to rest with the sounds of Earth mourners: “Amazing Grace” is played on the bagpipes by his fellow officer, Montgomery Scott, and Spock’s body is fired out a torpedo tube.

Brevity does not take away from the deep feeling of this one, because it is built on that crucial knowledge. Kirk knows Spock, and we know them both from their five-year mission to seek out new life. A shared adventure has ended, and the next must begin.

2. My Girl

Nothing can be said at the funeral of a child. The tragedy is too large to be spoken, and the life to be spoken of wasn’t lived. The knowing that we bring to the eulogy is brief and unformed, and all that’s left to commemorate is the small hole where that person should be, making the hole a little bigger every day.

True to that impossibility, the funeral for Thomas J. Sennett (a name too grown-up for any character played by Macaulay Culkin at his zenith) is mostly made up of bible verses rather than any actual eulogy. Best friend Vada is the only one to speak for him, demanding his glasses and telling everyone that the kid in the box was gonna be an acrobat.

Better to be known for just the dreams of who we wanted to be than for nothing at all.

1. Big Fish

What we know of the dead might not be good. In Big Fish, a eulogy must account for a man who seems to have lied about everything he ever said or did. It’s a classic father and son tale: the son who has never gotten enough from a larger-than-life father must face all the hollow places inside the old man. He must accept the truth, even though he has known it all along.

It is that knowing that allows us to shape our lives and the lives of others into stories worth telling. It makes the mess of a life into something neat enough to fit into newspaper columns, something people can sit through without wailing or calling the speaker a liar to their face.

That’s the magic of it, in the knowing. Knowing the truth, knowing the lies. Knowing how to tell a story, at the moment it’s needed most.