How To Write A Eulogy To Highlight A Friend’s Accomplishments
Elisa González Díaz, a former San Bernardino elected official, passed away recently at 99 after enjoying a beautiful, accomplished life with her husband, Leno Díaz.
Elisa was my friend and mentor — I felt honored to be invited to deliver a eulogy at her memorial service, but I wasn’t sure how to write a memorable eulogy.
I knew it had to be heartfelt, carefully written in advance and deliver a unique message. Here is the blueprint for how I wrote my eulogy, which could guide you too, should you need to write one.
What’s their story?
For my eulogy, I decided to focus on Elisa’s San Bernardino story.
Elisa and Leno lived their last years in Los Angeles in the care of their daughter. But, Elisa left her heart in San Bernardino, where she created remarkable memories and gained enduring friendships. This is the city where she and Leno raised two children, where Elisa nurtured innumerable students as a teacher and served as an elected official.
During visits, Elisa always asked about happenings in her hometown, “¿Y como van las cosas en San Bernardino?” (“How are things going in San Bernardino.)
Frances J. Vasquez facilitates Tesoros de Cuentos writing workshops in Casa Blanca and serves as Past President of the Inlandia Institute Board of Directors.
I would respond with a bit of local humor. Elisa was stricken with Alzheimer’s. So, we repeated this familiar refrain as if it were “El Corrido de San Bernardino.” (The ballad of San Bernardino.)
A story is not always a straight line
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are many ways to convey the story, but not all of them start at the beginning and end at the end. As in other types of writing, you have a choice: You can tell it chronologically, or as flashbacks – little vignettes – that help to convey a sense of the person. I chose the latter approach.
Elisa gained fame as the first Latina elected to the San Bernardino City Unified School District Board of Education. She served four terms and won every election — sometimes running unopposed. Elisa was a valued and popular trustee with voters and the San Bernardino establishment.
Her strong sense of justice and uncompromising integrity was apparent. At the time, the school district was under a 1978 court injunction to integrate the schools and implement equal- opportunity programs. And it was perceived as anti-Latino.
When she saw that Latino students were not performing well academically, she advocated for bilingual education and after-school enrichment programs. Her suggestions were often met with deaf ears. Elisa was tenacious. She raised issues, asked questions, and developed district policy.
Details make all the difference
Since I only had a short time and couldn’t cover every little thing, I chose to focus on Elisa’s career. I could have focused on her family life or her childhood, but I chose to draw attention to attributes that I found admirable.
Elisa was an outspoken and tough negotiator. She never let board members get away with demeaning remarks about students. She achieved this with her calm, master-teacher demeanor. Her solid background in education gave her an advantage of understanding.
She was a trail blazer who opened the doors for other Latinas in the San Bernardino Valley to run for public office. Elisa made friends every place she went. But in San Bernardino, she created admirers and protégés.
Add an anecdote or two
Anecdotes are very brief personal stories that help to convey something in a succinct manner. I chose an anecdote that highlighted Elisa’s personality.
One day we were at la Plaza de Culturas y Arte in L.A. for an exhibition on the Chicano movement. While perusing a section on women, Elisa and I studied the posters and photographs. She reminisced about those days of social justice and civic activism. Elisa stated emphatically (and bilingually), “Creían que eramos unas tontas.” (They thought we were stupid.) She followed that up in English with, “They wanted us to make coffee, but we wanted to make policy.”
I also chose this one:
Elisa was intellectual and politically astute and a patron of the arts. Leno invited us to see a Latin American folk art exhibition, Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular at the L.A. Museum of Natural History. Before the excursion, we visited in their Los Angeles home discussing books, art, family.
Elisa quietly listened to the conversations and glanced at Leno. With twinkling eyes and a bright smile, she exclaimed lucidly, “He’s so handsome!” Afterward, as we prepared to leave for the museum, I whispered to Leno about what Elisa had said. His face lit up. Yes, Leno’s bride of over 65 years still swooned at the sight of her tall, handsome husband.
Wrap it up with a meaningful quote
I concluded Elisa’s tribute with an elegy by Ralph Waldo Emerson — it seemed perfect, as if he had written it for her:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better … This is to have succeeded.”
I hope if ever you are tasked with writing a eulogy, you will remember that person as fondly as I do Elisa.