The Sunday Magazine

How the public eulogy can help us deal with private grief

From Princess Diana's "candle in the wind", to astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s "touch the face of God", to Justin Trudeau's "Je t'aime, papa", the public eulogy helps define our memory of the person who is gone. Canadian writer Julia Cooper has been fascinated by eulogies since her mother died at the age of 57. Julia's book is called "The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy".
The Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth view the thousands of flowers and tributes left outside Kensington Palace in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, on September 5, 1997. (AFP/Getty Images)
Twenty years ago, Princess Diana died in a fiery crash and the world exploded with public expressions of grief. Her life — and her death — were commemorated, memorialized and eulogized. The gates to Buckingham Palace were festooned with flowers and notes from broken-hearted mourners, and two billion people tuned in to watch her funeral.
Prince William, right, seen beside Charles Spencer, Princess Diana's brother, with Prince Harry and Prince Charles behind them. (AFP-Pool/Associated Press)

What is the purpose of these expressions of grief? What are we doing, when we make public our feelings about the death of a person? What does it mean, to eulogize a famous person or a loved one?
These are questions that have fascinated Julia Cooper since her own mother died at the age of fifty seven.  
Julia Cooper is the author of "The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy." (Coach House Books)
Her death sent shockwaves through Ms. Cooper's eighteen-year-old world, and set her on a path no teenager should ever have to walk: that of figuring out grief — wrestling with it, trying to tame it and place it into some kind of manageable context.
The result of that journey is a slender volume called The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy.
Julia Cooper is a culture writer and film critic based in Toronto. She is the former managing editor of cléo, and her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Vogue, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. She recently completed a PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto.
New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe was aboard Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, when the vehicle exploded shortly after liftoff. She was eulogized by then-President Ronald Reagan, with a reading of the poem "High Flight". (NASA/AP)

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air… .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew — 
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr


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