On reaching my late seventies, I too often receive the painful news of friends dying. I have written eulogies to be read at memorial services where I try, in a few carefully chosen words, to convey some approximation of who they were.
The eulogies usually recall my friends’ varied accomplishments, their virtues, the public personas they projected, and, most importantly, my sorrow about their loss. If there is space, I include a humorous, telling anecdote that conveys something about their best self — the one I feel they would have wanted to be remembered by. I try not to deal with their flaws, for it seems pointless and gratuitously destructive to diminish someone when they are gone. But I also want to avoid being sentimental and untrue to their essence, sounding like rabbis, ministers, and priests who eulogize the departed (whom they have never met) being mawkish and using boilerplate platitudes.
I understand some of my friends better than others. Either that is because I have known them for a longer time, or have seen them act in public situations (e.g., work, political movements) that reveal more of their selves than most of our personal encounters. With others I have had the kind of intimate talk where much more of one’s inner life is exposed than the normal commonplaces of daily conversation. Of course, that happens much less with men of my generation, who tend to evade probing too deeply into their inner lives, but it does occur.
Still, I feel confident in my powers of observation to speculate on aspects of my friends’ lives that we have never discussed. At the same time, I know it’s just speculation, and there is something mysterious and unknowable at the core of everyone we interact with, even those we know most intimately.
In the best fiction and memoirs characters are depicted and analyzed in rich detail, but the writers still usually convey that no person can be simply summed up, that no one lacks the kind of complex layers of self that can be reduced to some simple typologies or set of adjectives. As Penelope Lively, an observant and subtle octogenarian English novelist, has written, albeit about relationships, not individuals:
“It’s the one thing you’re constantly confronted with: other people’s relationships, and how wrong you can be about them, too.” She goes on to say that people are not always very visible on the surface. Their public selves being very different than whom they are.
Still, I know that I will write more eulogies, for none of us is immortal and time’s passage cannot be reversed. However, I will always hold back writing about certain aspects of a friend’s character — leaving out, for example, how a warm and gregarious friend could at times be malicious in his personal relationships. Or how a humane socially committed one, loved to exercise power over subordinates at work. I try to evoke my friends in a way that makes them come alive, always understanding by choice and by ultimate lack of knowledge — that I have merely scratched the surface, and conveyed merely a partial truth about who they were. And when I die and someone writes my eulogy, I want friends to also say positive but only true things about me. No tough-minded analysis but also no gushing praise, just a sense of who I was.