A few weeks back, Whitney Houston died and was buried.
I’m not much of a Houston fan. Truthfully, I wouldn’t describe myself as a music fan.
But as the news coverage played and replayed during the week between her death and funeral, I discovered that I know an amazing number of her songs.
What I know about music would fill a thimble, but her voice makes the hairs on my arms stand up every time she holds that crazy long note.
When I learned she had died, I wondered what Kevin Costner, Houston’s Bodyguard co-star, made of her passing.
I didn’t know they were still friends or that he would speak at her funeral:
I really did not expect that his eulogy would be a master class in how to:
- give a moving, heartfelt and entirely decorous eulogy
- own an audience by anticipating and meeting their expectations
- provide five key points for anyone giving speech
Let’s break it down.
1. Be Gracious
“I’d like to thank Cissy and Dionne for the honour of being here . . . and for everyone in the church for greeting my wife and I so gracefully.” (0:20)
Costner opens with these words of thanks at what must be an incredibly difficult moment for the Houston family.
Grief is hard at the best of times. I can’t imagine how much harder it is with CNN in the room.
No matter the occasion, speaking is always a privilege — whether you thank your hosts at the beginning or end of your remarks, make sure that acknowledgement is there.
2. It’s Never About You
“A lot of leading men could have played my part, . . . a lot of guys. A lot of guys could have filled that role. But you, Whitney, I truly believe you were the only one that could have played Rachel Marron at that time. [Applause] You weren’t just pretty. You were as beautiful as a woman could be. And people didn’t just like you, Whitney. They loved you. (14:20-14:58)
Eulogies, like any public speech, are about the relationship created between the subject and the audience.
It’s not about your grief for the departed, even — perhaps, especially — if you were close.
Eulogies provide focus for the collective loss experienced by everyone from the immediate family down to casual acquaintances.
If you can’t deliver a meaningful collection of anecdotes that evoke the essence of the departed, you should give the podium to someone else.
Costner keeps Houston front and center — not an easy task, given the simple fact that as a celebrity, everything he says will be interpreted through the lens of his own fame.
Whether talking about his childhood experiences growing up in the Baptist Church (2:30) or his memory of Houston’s makeup disaster during her screen test for The Bodyguard (11:00-12:40), Costner’s anecdotes use his recollections to evoke her talent, tenacity and heartbreaking sense of inadequacy.
It’s a particularly strategic tactic given Houston’s well-documented history of drug addiction.
Rather than trying to speak about the darker aspects of her life — which runs the risk of appropriating her experience and striking inappropriate chords — Costner uses his experiences with religion as a child and celebrity as an adult to evoke the heart of Houston’s struggles without descending to the level of the tabloid.
It’s a difficult dance.
He makes it look easy.
3. Address Your Audience’s Doubts
“Your mother and I had a lot in common. I know many at this moment are thinking, ‘REALLY?’
“She’s a girl, you’re a boy. You’re white, she’s black. We hear you like to sing, but our sister could really sing.” (1:47–2:09)
Good speakers anticipate the doubts silently harboured by their audiences.
They use their remarks to address and resolve those doubts.
In the sequence quoted above, Costner raises and dismantles the doubts his audience might have about his right to speak about Houston.
As you can hear in the audience response, it’s an ideal place to start given the setting.
Immediately, it establishes shared rapport between Costner and everyone in the room.
I am one of you, he is saying. My life started here, just like yours did, just like hers did. In this we are the same, no matter what we look like or where life has since taken us.
Connecting with your audience early in your speech is essential if you want them to really hear what you have to say.
4. Laughter is Your Best Ally
Listen to the laugh Costner gets after that first ‘REALLY?’ (1:50-1:55).
Those people are so thirsty for laughter you can almost taste it.
To the recently bereaved, laughter is far sweeter than tears.
Laughter also forms a key connection between a speaker and an audience.
After this first laugh, the audience seems more willing to follow Costner, murmuring their agreement at key points in the remarks that follow.
I think it’s his willingness to invite laughter, most often at the expense of his younger self, that wins them over.
5. You Aren’t a Robot
“I’m going to say some stories. Maybe some of them you know, maybe some of them you don’t. I wrote ’em down because I didn’t wanna . . . I didn’t want to miss anything.” (0:30–0:42)
That pause says it all, doesn’t it?
Speaking is stressful at the best of times. At a funeral, it can feel damn near impossible.
Before any speech, it’s best to do as Costner has done and have some notes prepared so you can refer to them if emotion overcomes you.
But don’t be afraid of emotion.
It is a natural part of speech and the core of how humans relate to each other.
In a eulogy, the odd quaver perversely reinforces the truth and weight of what you have to say, provided you don’t become utterly incoherent.
I listened to this speech several times while preparing this post.
Costner struggles most with his feelings when conveying his awe at her talent, acknowledging the internal doubts Houston struggled against, and — unsurprisingly — when observing that his friend has died.
If you do find your feelings get the better of you, the best advice is very simple.
Take a deep breath.
Sip some water.
Take your time.
Buffy: Was it sudden?
Tara: It’s always sudden.
— “The Body,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5
The last funeral I went to was for Bruce Shiga.
Bruce was a long-time family friend, a devoted dad and husband, and a retired principal.
I learned a lot of things about his life during that service.
How he meticulously scheduled his time to make sure he could learn and experience as much as possible each way.
The way he supported his colleagues and students to do their best.
The wonder and silliness he inspired in his kids.
The depth of his love for his wife, Mary.
I cried a lot during those eulogies, particularly during the two delivered by his sons.
But I laughed harder and more often.
I don’t have copies of those eulogies for you to watch, but there were many similarities of tone and timing between what and how those speakers spoke and Costner’s excellent example.
Perhaps that’s why I found this speech so fascinating.
I hope you did, too.