How remembering the dead has evolved from graveside eulogy to farewell address

Religion News Service | 5/24/2019 | Staff
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(RNS) — Cyrus M. Copeland first became fascinated with how we say farewell to the dead after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when New Yorkers like him were consumed with memorable tributes to the people who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

What started as a pastime has turned into a three-volume appreciation of the art of the eulogy.

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In the last book of his trilogy, “Passwords: Seven Steps to Writing a Memorable Eulogy,” he reflects on the evolution of our last words to the dead and gives advice on what to say.

Cyrus M. Copeland. Courtesy photo.

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Copeland, who concedes his own eulogy for his father back in 1992 was not his best work, has learned a lot about the power of a good eulogy to honor the dead and give sustenance to the living.

A former advertising executive, Copeland left his job on Madison Avenue after 9/11 to pursue a writing career. This past year he has been traveling, mostly recently walking the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route leading to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela.

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Ahead of Memorial Day, a holiday established after the Civil War to honor and remember America’s fallen soldiers, RNS caught up with him to talk about how best to give tribute to the dead.

As Copeland writes, “A great eulogy cannot beat back Death, but it can give new meaning to life and this moment.”

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This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

How have eulogies changed over time?

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The art of remembrance goes back even before Pericles’ funeral oration to the very first time someone stood over the body of another and said words in honor of their passage. We Americans date it back to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where he said those immortal words, “fourscore and seven years ago” to commemorate the passing of Civil War soldiers.

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