The enduring challenge and increasing frequency of funeral orations

I’ve been involved in the sad business of preparing for the funeral of the 27-year old daughter of some friends of ours, who died in sudden and tragic circumstances.

I’ve found the determination of some of her young friends to speak at her funeral and the experience of editing their words and coaching them in rehearsals a more moving and uplifting experience than I’d expected.

The whole experience has reminded me just how difficult it can be to get it right for such a diverse audience on such a distressing occasion.

It also reminded me that, however suspicious some critics may be of all things rhetorical, there is still a demand and a need for impressive displays of rhetoric that catch the shared mood of a group, both at the best of times and at the worst of times.

At the national level, this is exactly what Tony Blair achieved a few hours after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August, 1997. At the time, I remember being surprised and impressed by the number of Tories who openly volunteered their approval of what a Labour prime minister had just said.

An added side effect was that it helped to establish the then new prime minister’s recognition as a national leader much more quickly than is usually the case. But that doesn’t in any way diminish the effectiveness of the writing or delivery of the speech on that particular morning.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Dianas family—in particular her two sons, two boys—our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation, in Britain, in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us.

She was a wonderful and warm human being. Though her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy, she touched the lives of so many others in Britain—throughout the world—with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her, in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy, when, with just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

How difficult things were for her from time to time, surely we can only guess at—but the people everywhere, not just here in Britain but everywhere, they kept faith with Princess Diana, they liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the peoples princess and thats how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.


Max Atkinson is a speechwriting and communication expert based in the United Kingdom.

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