“A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit” spans the past 100 years and includes eulogies written for many famous people as well as four heroes of Sept. 11, 2001.

“A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit” spans the past 100 years and includes eulogies written for many famous people as well as four heroes of Sept. 11, 2001. ()

People say final good-byes to loved ones every day in eulogies that can tell the story of a life and inspire mourners to make more of their own. They are delivered in small-town churches or great cathedrals, at simple ceremonies or with full military salutes, in the presence of immediate family or with whole nations watching.

New York author Cyrus Copeland offers a sample of such parting words in a second collection called “A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit” (Algonquin Books, $22.95). The book spans the past 100 years and includes eulogies written for many famous people, from movie stars to athletes to publishers. Also included are tributes to four heroes of Sept. 11, 2001.

Family members or close friends deliver most of the eulogies in the collection, and it is an emotionally daunting task. But it is the very power of the love and loss that most successfully transforms words into thoughts able “to lift the spirit,” as the book’s title promises.

The four eulogies for 9/11 heroes reverberate with the sentiment of those days five years ago, speaking to both the grief of the survivors and the heroic actions of those lost.

• Father Mychal Judge, who died at the World Trade Center, is remembered by fellow priest Father Michael Duffy: “We come to bury his mind but not his dreams. We come to bury his voice but not his message.”

• Navy Capt. Robert Dolan, who died in the Pentagon, “was the guy next to us in our lives,” the one you could always depend on, according to his best friend, Mark Wallinger.

• Chris Ganci, who eulogizes his father, Chief Peter Ganci of the New York City Fire Department, also lost at Ground Zero, says, “It gives me solace knowing that his actions might have spared someone else’s son from making this speech.”

The uplifting speeches, while not as numerous as one might expect, call listeners, and readers, to rise out of grief and into greater understanding. One of the most remarkable is the speech Bobby Kennedy gave when he learned of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kennedy was at the time engaged in the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination and was himself to be the victim of an assassin’s bullet just two months later. Citing the pain of his brother’s death, Kennedy implored all Americans to take the lessons of King’s life and to use them to improve the country. He quoted Greek playwright Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

These words would later be inscribed on RFK’s own grave at Arlington Cemetery.

Eulogies for those who were especially revered reflect the humility that great people inspire.

• Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorial for Mahatma Gandhi said, in part: “All we know is that for the moment there is darkness, not so dark certainly, because when we look into our hearts we still find the living flame which he lighted there.”

• Charles Kuralt says of Edward R. Murrow: “We don’t remember him for his honors. We remember him for how he honored us.”

Then there are simple expressions for the non-famous:

• Author Wallace Stegner wrote of his mother, Hilda Stegner, that “your love lasted longer than you yourself did.”

With 50 eulogies, the book is uneven. Not all inspire deep thoughts; some read a bit like press bios. Others seem as if they were written to put the eulogizer in the spotlight as much as the deceased, particularly in the case of celebrities.

Copeland includes brief biographies of each person eulogized, which help the reader to understand their lives, as well as how they died. They contain some entertaining and little-known nuggets. For instance:

• Actress Tallulah Bankhead said on her deathbed: “If I had to live my life over again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”

• Albert Schweitzer, in his reverence for all life, did not permit mosquitoes to be swatted at his hospital in Africa.

• Joan Crawford taught Steven Spielberg how to belch while filming a TV show in 1969.

• Orson Welles’ doctor advised him in 1958 to “stop having intimate dinners for four, unless there are three other people.”

In the end, eulogies are not so much for the deceased, but rather for the living, to help them say goodbye and go forward. Robert Hunter, songwriting partner of Jerry Garcia, wrote a poem for the Grateful Dead leader that included the lines:

“So I’ll just say I love youwhich I never said beforeand let it go at that, old friend,the rest you may ignore.”

And so it is with this collection. Readers may take what they can from these final good-byes; the rest they may ignore.

Terence J. Rainey is an Arlington, Va., freelance writer who has written and delivered several eulogies.

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