Eulogizing Without Lionizing
Andrew Cuomo, Jimmy Breslin, and the power of telling the complicated truth
Writing a good eulogy is hard, partially because it’s a speech no one wants to write. Conventional wisdom and how-to guides will instruct you to stay positive, avoiding any unflattering attributes or anecdotes about your loved ones. I hold the opposite view: I think a good eulogy benefits from a good roast.
On this, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and I agree.
In March of 2017, I accompanied my mother to the funeral of famed New York journalist Jimmy Breslin. Breslin’s most iconic piece was entitled “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” which, instead of covering the funeral service, profiled the man chosen to dig Kennedy’s grave. Scholars called it “Hemingway-esque,” writers deemed it life-changing, and journalists credited it with starting the “‘gravedigger school of news writing.”
This was the Breslin I envisioned when I arrived at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on the Upper West Side, passing paparazzi before scooting into the pews. I became aware of the Cuomo brothers, who had grown up with the Breslins in Queens, sitting a few rows away.
I had never met Breslin myself. My mother had come to support her friend Emily, Breslin’s stepdaughter, and I was there to join my mother — and admittedly, to hear glowing praise for one of New York’s most beloved reporters. But when Governor Cuomo got up to eulogize Breslin, he painted a very different picture:
I was 12 at the time and to me Mr. Breslin was just plain scary. Mr. Breslin smoked a cigar and he smelled like it. He had a gruff air and apparently had no time or love for little children.
…Although I was frightened by Mr. Breslin, I couldn’t help taunting him occasionally, the way a mouse would run through the paws of a lion.
…He would normally begin by cursing some politician and then continue for several minutes stringing together profanities and comments on parts of the human anatomy that I had never heard before. He would pause for a breath and I would say, “Oh Mr. Breslin, you must want to talk to my father.” This would incite the lion’s rage and he would say, “You little blank-blank,” and just hang up.
These were not mild, genial chides. They were character accusations, lobbed at a freshly dead man. I was stunned, nervous for what might come next. How would the crowd react to the Governor of New York ridiculing their dear friend, their devoted husband, their loving father?
With laughter, it turned out. Deep chortles filled the high ceilings of the church. However harsh, these portraits of Breslin were intimately familiar to those who knew him. They were met with knowing nods from the funeral-goers, who recognized the man they had loved through his characteristic, almost brutish brusqueness.
In that moment, the speech transcended its otherwise inevitable formality — the Governor of New York, standing at a podium, paying tribute to a deceased journalist — and became what every speechwriter hopes their work will be: relatable. Relatability is one of the most powerful tools we yield as writers — particularly for political speechwriters, who are tasked with cultivating an authenticity that can make or break their candidate.
Those blunt, honest details also established the speaker’s credibility with us, the listeners. So when Cuomo said this, we believed him:
Whose voice was authentic because he was authentic — he was New York — hardscrabble, brilliant, difficult, gifted, complicated, argumentative, accepting and loving.
But as the spirit lives his voice lives in all of us and if we listen we can hear him saying today, “What do they mean they are going to cut the taxes for the richest Americans and tell the poorest that we can’t afford to give you health care? Who do they think they are — who made their lives more important than the rest of us?”
Had Cuomo not begun the speech depicting Breslin’s chronic curmudgeon-hood, the disposition that his friends and family knew all too well, we may not have bought that Cuomo sees Breslin as his personal moral compass. In capturing both, Cuomo acknowledges that people are complicated; they were complicated before they died, and they are complicated in death still. (Of course, the Governor may have his own motivations for preaching that point of view — but that doesn’t make it any less true.)
Despite the title of this analysis, Cuomo did in fact lionize Breslin — that is, he compared him to a literal lion. But this is not a lion with corny Wizard of Oz courage, but a real lion, a wild lion, one who bites and roars indiscriminately. As writers, that’s the kind of lionizing we want to do.
It comes back to the idea that no one — and pardon my French here, because you know Breslin would — wants to be bullshitted. We don’t want a politician to tell us the world is some perfect place when it is (literally) burning, just like we don’t want a eulogy to tell us that our loved one was an angel when we knew them to be more of an a-hole. Instead of sugarcoating someone beyond recognition, we’d be better off just telling the truth.
Because at the end of the day, depicting someone in full (mane, roar, and all) is a sign of respect to the audience — and, it’s an act of love for the person they’re mourning. My mother sometimes paraphrases the author William Faulkner, who once wrote, “you don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.” Sitting in the pews that morning, Jimmy’s family and friends and admirers, no matter their relationship to the great journalist, received one completely identifiable picture. The choice stories strung together in Cuomo’s eulogy captured an essence recognizable to everyone in the room, making us laugh and cry and say yes, for all his faults, that was Jimmy. And we loved him despite.
— Hannah Kahn (WWW Intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Read Cuomo’s eulogy for Breslin in its entirety here.
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