Why Can’t We Tell The Truth At Funerals?

All dead people are not amazing.

I went to a funeral last week.

The service -- held at one of those bland cream-decor funeral parlours -- consisted of a typically solemn introduction followed by three typically uplifting eulogies. The speakers said things like:

“Granddad always made me laugh! I remember going fishing with him. Once we caught an absolute whopper!”

“Dad loved a roast! Looked forward to a nice leg of lamb every Sunday, the whole family sitting around the table.”

“Bob -- war hero, businessman, Essendon supporter. Just a fair-dinkum, top Aussie bloke.”

Bob was a top Aussie bloke. He also loved illegal fishing, belting his children and a good jokey racist comment. (Image: Getty Images)

This is how all eulogies go. It doesn’t matter whose funeral it is. As soon as you die you get to be revered.

I googled “how to write a eulogy” and found this piece of advice: “A eulogy can be made meaningful by describing your loved one’s life in terms of achievements.”

Essentially, the eulogist must say that the deceased person:

  • was a wonderful mother/father and wife/husband
  • had many close friends
  • worked hard to achieve career success
  • excelled in all sorts of extra-curricular activities
  • was incredibly generous
  • supported their local club/society/association
  • will be missed by all

That’s the formula. Because all dead people are amazing.

The formula for a winning eulogy. (Image: Getty Images)
Hold on. Wait. Not all living people are amazing. So why do we suddenly pretend they’re incredible and lovely the moment they drop off the perch?

At Bob’s funeral, there were plenty of things that nobody mentioned:

The fact that he left his first wife and children and never saw them again. How he suffered from night terrors because of the things he witnessed in Vietnam. The way he smacked his children with a belt. His penchant for illegal fishing. The time he threatened to shoot one of his relatives. How he made jokey racist comments and drank too much whiskey.

None of that stuff got brought up during the service.

Yes, I know the saying: Never speak ill of the dead. But why not? They can’t hear you. They’ll never know! And frankly, if somebody wasn’t particularly nice while they were alive, it doesn’t seem logical to put them on a pedestal after they die.

Everyone revels in the misfortune of others. That’s why we watch Bondi Rescue and Car Crash Global and The Bachelor. Disaster is way more interesting than success. Even though I love it when Masterchef contestants produce near-perfect restaurant-quality dishes, I find it more entertaining when recipes catch fire and Panna Cotta spheres don’t set.

Nobody’s perfect. Some people are pretty great -- you know they type: medical professionals who enter triathlons and have three well-behaved children and help at the local soup kitchen every Wednesday night. But even over-achievers have issues. To err is human!

Jean wasn't actually that great. Now who wants a cuppa? (Image: Getty Images)

I say we do away with inaccurate eulogies and instead include a list of personal failures and personality flaws. Perhaps if more honesty was injected into funeral speeches the mourners might gain a better understanding -- a more rounded and true impression -- of the deceased. Then they could bond over shared experiences at the post-service wake. “Oh -- he borrowed money from you, too?” “So she flirted with everyone! I thought it was just me.”

I’m happy to have someone present a truthful eulogy at my funeral. It could go something like this:

Jean spent her teenage years doing homework -- classic teachers’ pet -- but boy was she socially awkward. You know what? She didn’t get invited to a party until she was at university. University! I tried to hug her once. Hopeless! Like hugging an ironing board! She wasn’t overly helpful, either. No one would ever describe her as generous or selfless. She occasionally threw a twenty-cent coin at a busker, but all in all, she was an absolute tightarse. And guess what? She called herself a vegetarian but she secretly ate food that contained gelatine! Such a hypocrite. We’re all here today to celebrate Jean’s life, but the fact is, she wasn’t that great. Now, put up your hand if you’ve just come for the arvo tea.

Funeral parlours might be bland, but funeral speeches don’t have to be.