Scientist explains the psychological function of eulogizing the deceased

New research suggests that people eulogize the deceased because it helps mitigate distress and concerns about death in general.

The study, published in the journal Motivation and Behavior, found that people tended to spontaneously praise and idealize a person when they imagined that person’s death, even if they did not feel personally close to them. The study also found that eulogizing the deceased mitigated the distress and death-related concerns aroused by death.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Joseph Hayes of Acadia University. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

My interest in this topic was a natural extension of my more general interest in how people cope with the awareness of death. There have been hundreds of studies done to examine how people manage anxiety surrounding their own death, but very little work had been done on people’s reactions to the death of others. I was also struck by what people would say about deceased people when being interviewed by news crews who were covering the story of an accidental death, for example. Without exception, the interviewee would speak in glowingly positive terms about the deceased. News coverage of the death of important celebrities or political leaders seems to follow the same script. In addition to covering the facts surrounding how the person died, there is always an additional element that entails telling the story of the person’s life and how that life was in some way exemplary or heroic.

What is perhaps most interesting about all of this is that it corresponds quite closely with what people tend to do when they react to thoughts of their own death. An extensive body of literature from terror management theory shows that one of the principle ways in which we manage the anxiety aroused by death-awareness is by attempting to increase our self-esteem or elevate our overall sense of personal significance. The idea is that doing so helps to elevate us above temporal existence, to a symbolic level of death transcendence. Although each person will inevitably die, the belief that we will be remembered by others long after our death as a person who lived life “the right way” helps to alleviate death-related anxiety and despair.

Thus, eulogizing the life of another after they die is almost like upholding our part of the bargain. We need to believe that others will carry on our memory after our death in order to allay our anxieties, and so we do for them what we hope they will do for us. When you think about it this way, you can see why the eulogy has become such an institutionalized aspect of the funeral ceremony. It satisfies our deeply rooted need to manage our own anxiety and sadness surrounding death and finitude.

What should the average person take away from your study?

In general, I am always intrigued when I feel compelled to say or do something. I always wonder “where is this compulsion or motivational tendency coming from?” The take-away from this research is that the awareness of death plays a much larger role in our daily lives than most people realize. Some researchers even argue that our entire cultural way of life revolves around denying death, and keeping death-related anxieties under wraps.

These anxiety-buffering tendencies are especially strong in times when we are actually confronted by the death of someone we know. As a result, our cultural way of life has evolved ready-made scripts for coping with these situations, and we call upon these scripts nearly automatically in times of need. In fact, the institutionalization of a eulogy at a funeral ceremony represents a perfect example of this sort of script in action. We feel compelled to say nice things about the deceased and to carry on their memory so that their life is seen as having been significant rather than meaningless. This, in turn, helps us to feel that life in general is meaningful and helps us carry on despite knowing full well that it is only a matter of time before we are the one lying in the coffin.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

One caveat that I would add pertains to the nature of the studies that I conducted to test these ideas. For practical purposes, I did not examine participants’ responses to real death. Rather, I merely asked them to imagine that a person in their had died. This allowed me to randomly assigned participants to think about the person as being dead vs. not dead, which is important for experimental validity. Although I believe that these studies successfully captured a real-world phenomenon, I cannot say for certain that the same processes unfold in response to imagined death as they do in response to actual death. Other studies, however, which have investigated mourning processes following the death of loved ones, do appear to be broadly consistent with my findings.

Another caveat that I would like to mention is that the mourning literature suggests that sometimes maintaining an overly positive perception of the deceased is indicative of complicated grief. This would seem to be directly contradictory to my findings. However, it may be that eulogizing the deceased is an effective short-term coping strategy that helps predominantly in the early days following a person’s death. When this tendency persists long-term if may suggest that the individual is still having difficulty coming to grips with the person’s death. Ultimately, effective long-term coping—especially when the deceased was a central aspect of one’s life—may necessitate a degree of acceptance and accommodation of old life patterns that are no longer viable. In brief, more research is needed to determine when the tendency to praise the dead is part of a normal process of coping with the death of others, and when it is indicative of maladaptive coping processes.

The study was titled: “Praising the dead: On the motivational tendency and psychological function of eulogizing the deceased“.