The enduring challenge and importance of funeral orations

Unlike many commentators, I haven’t had much time to try my hand at second guessing what Barack Obama might say in his inaugural address tomorrow. This is because I’ve been involved in the sad business of preparing for the funeral of the 27-year old daughter of some friends of ours, who died in sudden and tragic circumstances.

I've found the determination of some of her young friends to speak at her funeral and the experience of editing their words and coaching them in rehearsals a more moving and uplifting experience than I’d expected.

[And - now the funeral is over - what was even more uplifting was to hear them doing such a fantastic job, and see them receiving so much well-deserved praise from those who were there].

The whole experience has reminded me just how difficult it can be to get it right for such a diverse audience on such a distressing occasion.

It also reminded me that, however suspicious some critics may be of all things rhetorical, there is still a demand and a need for impressive displays of rhetoric that catch the shared mood of a group, both at the best of times and at the worst of times.

At the national level, this is exactly what Tony Blair achieved a few hours after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August, 1997 (see text and video below). At the time, I remember being surprised and impressed by the number of Tories who openly volunteered their approval of what a Labour prime minister had just said.

An added side effect was that it helped to establish the then new prime minister's recognition as a national leader much more quickly than is usually the case. But that doesn't in any way diminish the effectiveness of the writing or delivery of the speech on that particular morning.

BLAIR:Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Dianas family - in particular her two sons, two boys - our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation, in Britain, in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us.

She was a wonderful and warm human being. Though her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy, she touched the lives of so many others in Britain - throughout the world - with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her, in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy, when, with just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

How difficult things were for her from time to time, surely we can only guess at - but the people everywhere, not just here in Britain but everywhere, they kept faith with Princess Diana, they liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the peoples princess and thats how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.


Anonymous said...

I have recently had the pleasure of talking to a Polish Catholic priest who works as a seminary professor of Eschatology, i.e. the ultimate things to pass like what happens after death and how the Last Judgement day is going to feel like etc. He likes to tell his students that Eschatology is the most important and most practical thing they are learning at the seminary. In fact, he claims, the life of a future preacher may depend on the funeral speech he makes - if he says something wrong then he is heading for serious trouble with the widow, child or friends of the deceased. It is my reflection, however, that a good funeral speech is clearly just as much about getting your Eschatology right as it is about making best use of your retorics.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, pondering the Obama speech yesterday led my thoughts to Blair's Diana speech, which was the first time I'd really noticed him as an orator - and which put him so far ahead of the Tory leader at the time (so unforgettable that I've forgotten who it was, ut I think it was Hague) that it was difficult to credit that they were both party leaders.

In other words, I totally agree with you, Max!

Max Atkinson said...

Martin - Interesting that you made such a connection, but I was a bit surprised to hear you hadn't rated his oratory before - as Blair was surely one of the best speakers British politics has seen for a long time. When Kinnock resigned, I was going around saying that Labour should go for Blair, rather than Smith, as their next leader - a view based solely on the fact that I'd been very impressed by a few speeches I'd seen him make just before and after the 1992 general election. If Smith had lived long enough to fight the 1997 election, Labour might have just about scraped past the winning post, but I don't think there would have been a landslide without Blair at the helm.

Martin Le Poidevin said...

Whoops - didn't notice your reply, Max. Sorry.

I guess that time would have been during my non-politically aware years. I wouldn't say I didn't rate him, but that was the speech that made me sit up and take notice. Esp, as I say, when it was broadcast in contrast to Hague's reaction.