My Tribute

By the time we reach our senior years, most of us have heard many tributes to people, often delivered at funeral services and at other times spoken on happier occasions. A tribute is an expression of respect and admiration and, at its best, it is written intuitively and from the heart. 

There are, of course, guidelines that can help, especially if we have not had a previous opportunity to create one. The particular circumstances do much to shape the form and content of the tribute. 

  • Is this a tribute to a living person or for one who’s life has ended? 
  • Is this a tribute that will be given privately or one that may be read aloud with an audience present? 
  • If the tribute is to be read as a speech, will the emotions of the listeners be those of sadness and grief or of joy and celebration? 

Tribute Writing Guidelines

1) For a Living Person

Option A: A Private Written Tribute, to be delivered in person or via mail.

Essentially, a private written tribute is an extended form of the “Gratitude Letter,” or Thank-You letter described in the “Living with Gratitude” writing activity. 

  • Address the tribute person by name, either formally or informally, depending on your relationship and the occasion that has prompted your tribute.
  • Explain why you are writing the tribute (remembering that your main aim is to thank and to honour the person)
  • Identify and comment on traits or characteristics that you admire, activities you that appreciate, involvements that you respect
  • Describe the impact he person has had on your life (and / or on the lives of others)
  • Offer the person your well wishes for the future

Option B: A Public Tribute

Public tributes are given on occasions such as graduations, birthdays, retirement parties, award ceremonies or events recognizing the contributions of volunteers. If you have the honour of being asked to speak, you will wish to know how much time is available and as much as you can learn about the audience. You might ask if there are other people from whom you can gather information as you write and reflect on your remarks.

  • Introduce yourself, if there are people listening who do not know you, and indicate the nature of your relationship to the tribute person.
  • Greet the tribute person by name, other notable guests, and the general audience (e.g. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” “Friends”)
  • Express your appreciation for the honour of speaking and your intent to honour the tribute person.
  • Speak in general of the circumstances of the gathering (e.g. the retirement of a work colleague or valued employee; the advancing age of a family member or friend; the graduation of an individual or a class; the deserved achievement of an award winner; the worthy contributions of a volunteer).
  • Identify and comment on the person’s admirable traits or characteristics and / or the notable activities and achievements.
  • Speak specifically of the impact the person or group has had and why it has garnered respect.
  • If time permits, share a couple of stories about the individual that are humorous or inspirational.
  • In your closing, wish the person or group well in future endeavours.

If possible, find a theme that unifies the tribute person’s admirable traits—e.g. their work ethic (“Going the Extra Mile”); their philosophical outlook on life (“a Beacon of Hope”); their religious faith (“a Seeker on a Journey”).

If appropriate, use a memorable quotation, a relevant line of poetry, a verse of scripture, or even one of the person’s own favourite sayings.

As a matter of etiquette, make your remarks honest but kind. If you use humour, be certain it is not hurtful. (“If in doubt, leave it out.”)

Like a radio reporter, you are writing for the ear, not the eye. Your listeners will have no opportunity to re-read what is said. Use simple, declarative sentences. 

e.g. Mary is a committed volunteer.

e.g. Father taught us there are three ways to do any job. We needed to identify them. And we needed to choose the appropriate one for cost, speed, and quality.

Option C: A Build Up

Our lives are filled with many “put downs,” often cleverly stated and all the more painful for their wit. A rare but important form of tribute is the “Build Up,” a short personal note of encouragement. Psychologists tell us that positive reinforcement is more effective than criticism. A “build-up” note and its message will be remembered for all the right reasons.

  • Address the person as informally as is appropriate to your relationship.
  • Identify the trait or traits that you have observed and appreciated.
  • Indicate your appreciation for any behaviour or action that reflects this trait.
  • Encourage the person as he or she continues and close with your best wishes.

2) For a Deceased Person 

It is both an honour and a challenge to write and speak in tribute to a person who has died. Often this is called a “eulogy,” from the Greek words meaning to speak (logia) well or true (eu). Likely you will be a family member or a close friend of the deceased person.

An end-of-life occasion is bound to have a greater sense of finality and formality. Remember that you are speaking as a representative of the family. In your preparations for writing the eulogy, you likely will consult with a number of other people—family members and friends—to gather and reflect their memories and perspectives.

Determine in advance the maximum amount of time available to you.  Typically this will be three to five minutes; you may have five to ten. The person who is officiating at service is the main speaker and that person’s time to offer comfort and consolation should not be compromised by an overly long eulogy. 

You will speak during, before or after the funeral service depending on the religious tradition. At whatever time you speak, anticipate that the level of emotions will be high. You need to check each of your sentences for clarity and appropriateness. 

Again, “write for the ear,” using sentences that are not too long or complicated. Allow places to pause and breath; your tense emotions during delivery are likely to cause vocal chords to tighten. 

  • Introduce yourself, if there are people listening who do not know you, and indicate the nature of your relationship to the deceased person.
  • Acknowledge the family of the deceased person (e.g. the surviving spouse, the children, the parents), any dignitaries or special guests, and the general audience (e.g. “Friends” of “Friends of [the deceased]”) and offer your condolences.
  • Express your appreciation for the opportunity to honour the deceased person.
  • Speak briefly perhaps of the circumstances of the person’s passing (e.g. sudden? expected but still distressing?). Possibly mention when and how you learned the news.
  • Do not attempt a full life review, since a chronological approach takes considerable time. 
  • Highlight, instead, a few positive traits of the the person and activities which illustrate them. Find a theme, if you can, that ties together the various traits you wish to emphasize.
  • Mention the attitudes, activities or achievements for which the person will be most remembered (e.g “he believed that…”; “she taught me…”; “she often said…”).
  • If time permits, share a couple of stories about the individual that are humorous or inspirational. Be honest but kind and if mistakes or foibles are recalled (e.g. a hot temper, a drinking problem) provide an understanding context for them.
  • In your closing, express gratitude or admiration for what the person has given or done for family, for friends, for community or for country.

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.