Cyrus Copeland is known to his friends as the Goodbye Guy.
That's because, for the past five years, he's immersed himself in eulogies, the fond speeches delivered at funerals to honor the newly dead.
He tracked down 64 eulogies given for famous people - Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, Dr. Seuss - and turned them into a book, "Farewell, Godspeed," published in 2004.When that book did well, he put together a 50-eulogy sequel, "A Wonderful Life," which came out in 2006. It, too, features legends: Bob Hope, Rosa Parks, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney.
"People think eulogies are dour, tear-streaked things, but they're not," Copeland said. "The good ones are frequently very inspiring and occasionally very funny."
But what makes a good one? Copeland offered some tips:
- Open strongly. "If you start with 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today' you might as well give the audience a sleeping pill," Copeland said. "That kind of opening is a testament to the lack of creativity that is sure to follow."
As an example of an opening line that grabs the audience's attention, he cited Madonna's eulogy for Gianni Versace, the fashion designer: "I slept in Gianni Versace's bed."
- Be truthful. There's nothing worse than a snow job that makes the guy out to be a saint when everybody knows he wasn't, Copeland said. It's OK to mention foibles, because they highlight our shared humanity, he added.
He pointed to the eulogy given for the Rev. Mychal Judge, who was killed by falling debris as he ministered to dying firefighters at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.
The speech, given by the Rev. Michael Duffy, a friend, talked about how Father Judge dropped everything to rush to ground zero. "I have to say this, in case you really think he's perfect, he did take time to comb and spray his hair," Duffy said.
- Tell stories. "We all want to know our presence made a difference in people's lives," Copeland said, "and telling stories is one way to show that imprint."
When writer Pat Conroy gave the eulogy for his father, a larger-than-life Marine fighter pilot immortalized in book and movie as "The Great Santini," he described him as "the only person I have ever known whose self-esteem was absolutely unassailable." And then he told a story:
"Once I introduced my father before he gave a speech to an Atlanta audience. I said at the end of the introduction, 'My father decided to go into the Marine Corps on the day he discovered his IQ was the temperature of this room.'
"My father rose to the podium, stared down at the audience, and said without skipping a beat, 'My God, it's hot in here! It must be at least 180 degrees.' "
- Finish strongly. "It's the final goodbye, so find a way to make it count," Copeland said.
One of his favorites came from James Woods, the actor, in a eulogy for Bette Davis. Woods took one of the notoriously difficult actress' signature movie lines - "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" - and modified it to fit the person and the occasion.
"I guarantee," Woods said, "that up in heaven somewhere they are saying, 'Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy eternity.' "
Copeland got interested in eulogies - "the poetry of loss," he calls them - after he had to give one, for his father.
"The process of delivering a eulogy gets you to reflect on your own life and legacy," he said. He vowed then to live his own life with more abandon, to act on his dreams.
It took him about 10 years to follow through, to walk away from a lucrative career in advertising and put together the eulogy books. The catalyst was the 9/11 attacks. Living in New York, he was surrounded by goodbyes: newspaper obituaries, missing posters on utility poles, memorial services at churches spilling onto sidewalks.
"Just by the process of following my curiosities, putting one foot in front of the other, I've learned to live a life of greater faith, to take a step off the ledge without a net," he said. "I proved to myself I could do it."
But now he's giving up his title as the Goodbye Guy. No more collections of eulogies, no more speeches to conventions of funeral directors, no more sound bites for the media when a famous deceased person is being readied for a big send-off.
"Enough is probably enough," he said.
He's not wandering far from the worlds of words and death, though. He said he's heading to Southeast Asia soon to do some research for his next book - about belief in the afterlife.