In Memoriam - Write an Elegy or a Short Story About a Death

“At the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves--the dead come back and live with us.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Memorial Day Speech, 1884


The longer we live, the more ghosts we collect. Death being inevitable in this mortal coil, let’s acknowledge our dead and celebrate time spent together. Let’s examine those feelings of nostalgia etc. that creep up through our memories and explore our impulses to eulogize. 

Writing a eulogy “is, above all, the simple and elegant search for small truths,” Tom Chiarell advises in Esquire, “How to Give a Eulogy.” While eulogies often praise and rarely roast their subjects, it’s valuable to remember (especially since our efforts are literary) moral fallibility. Nobody is perfect, yet everyone ought to be remembered. Even villains get epitaphs. 

We usually deliver eulogies at funerals. They’re designed to ease us through our grief. Elegies are a little different. They are more formal for one thing, designed to be read by strangers, and they also do not have to be about people we love personally.

Derived from Greek, “elegy” describes a song of lament for the dead. Elegies are often short poems, written in verse in three parts, mirroring the stages of sorrow: first lament, then praise, and finally solace. They often evoke a general, metaphysical sense of loss while commemorating the life of a specific person. 

An elegy doesn’t need to be serious (on the Truman in 2007 I wrote one for a pink pen I lost), but good elegies are about real people. They generally hurt to write, and reading your own aloud can get salty, but honoring grief adds value to life. By writing something when nothing can be done, we make what’s past matter. 

This week, for Memorial Day, write an elegy or a short story to commemorate a death. It can be about someone close to you who died, or someone who died close to you. It can be about an historical figure, or envisioning a historic tragedy through the eyes of someone who died in it. You can write anything about death you desire, just be honest and try not to get hysterical.

Here are a few examples: 

“Anabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe 

“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

Catch 22, the death of Snowden, by Joseph Heller