Sometimes writers just have to write. Hm, that’s the same line I used to begin my previous column about how I was driven to write about the death of our beloved kitty, Tigger. But that time the “have to” was propelled internally. This time the impetus came from the outside.
This “have to” began a few weeks ago with a phone call from my wife’s sister, Joy. Her husband, Bill, had just died after years of declining health. A proud 85-year-old retired lieutenant colonel, Bill wanted a formal Marine burial in Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego.
As Joy explained to me by telephone, the cemetery allotted a strict thirty minutes for such events: a ten-minute Marine ceremony; ten minutes for the family; and ten minutes for the burial itself. Then came Joy’s request: would I be willing to present a ten-minute eulogy about Bill as part of the ceremony? Of course, I answered. This was one of those “have to” moments, one that created a formidable writer’s challenge.
I’d never given a funeral eulogy. Plenty of talks at celebrations of life, but never at a funeral. In fact, I had never even attended a military funeral. As I thought about my eulogy, the word, “appropriate,” hung threateningly over my head.
I also was never a Marine. Just two years doing public relations as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where my major assignment was writing press releases for social events of the Officers’ Wives Club.
On top of that, I didn’t know Bill all that well. I saw him occasionally, mainly at large gatherings of the Vermilyeas, my wife Laurel’s casual, sprawling (eight siblings), outgoing family. During those boisterous Vermilyea events, Bill, a friendly but innately reserved man, tended to share little about himself. Over the course of forty years, he and I probably hadn’t spent 60 minutes total in one-on-one conversation. As I thought about my challenge, those ten minutes kept getting longer and longer.
Fortunately, in his last years Bill had written down a few of his memories of growing up in Mariposa, California. That was a start.
Then there was his family. Besides Joy, Bill had five daughters, now spread from Nebraska to New Zealand. So I wrote to his daughters, asking if they would briefly share with me some stories about their dad. Three responded with charming reminiscences. Now, how to put it all together?
Compared to most creative writing endeavors, preparing an imminent funeral eulogy is truly high pressure. There is no waiting until you’re in the mood, no gracious time to let your ideas gestate, no ruminating about who might read it, no opportunity for second chances. With a funeral eulogy, you’ve got one shot at it. Opening night is also closing night.
And you know your audience. In this case, there were six people I wanted to please: Joy and Bill’s five daughters at a time of supreme loss. Anyone else was a bonus.
My writing predisposition is to choose a single image and then build a story around that. So I began the eulogy with an image: “When I think of Bill Stewart, I remember him as The Quiet Man.” From there I constructed a narrative about Bill, integrating some of his own written childhood reminiscences as well as stories from his daughters.
How I labored over those six pages! Draft after draft. Laurel remarked that she had never seen me work so hard on a piece of writing.
The ceremony began with the Marines conducting a profoundly moving American flag ceremony in front of Bill’s ashes and firing 21 shots in honor of their deceased comrade. When I got up to speak, I felt as much pressure as I ever have in my long public lecturing career.
I think the eulogy went well. Joy and one daughter hugged me. Two others sent me very nice thank you letters. Maybe best of all, my sense is that The Quiet Man would have been happy, too.
Carlos E. Cortés is professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside and author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time.”