If you’ve ever been a part of a funeral or memorial service, you might have come across the terms “elegy” and “eulogy” in the order of service. While these words sound similar, and they’re both commonly associated with memorial or funeral services, they have different meanings. It’s also hard to know the difference between these words and other pieces of writing, such as odes, dirges, and epitaphs.
In our elegy vs. eulogy guide below, we’ll discuss the main differences between the two with examples.
Elegy vs. eulogy
Elegies and eulogies are both forms of writing presented at memorial or funeral ceremonies to commemorate someone who has passed away. However, elegies are typically written in poem structure, and are more sad or mournful in tone. Eulogies are typically written speeches without a defined style, and often feel more celebratory in tone. Below, we’ll explore both in detail along with other types of commemorative writing.
What is an elegy?
An elegy refers to a mournful poem, usually dedicated to someone who’s passed away. This word derives from the Greek word elegos, which translates to “song of mourning.” An elegy can also be considered a tribute to the deceased, but above all, it’s a poem that laments and expresses grief over someone’s death.
While you can read an elegy poem at a memorial service or celebration of life, they’re usually presented in written form. For example, Walt Whitman wrote his famous elegy poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” after the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
Verses from his elegy include:
"O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."
Elegy vs. ode
An elegy is similar to an ode in that it’s a lyrical poem with Greek origins, written about someone special. However, the main difference between the two is the tone. An elegy is usually sorrowful and mournful, as the poet laments the loss of someone, while an ode tends to be more celebratory as it honors and praises someone or something. Furthermore, an elegy is reserved for the deceased, and it’s not uncommon for an ode to celebrate someone still living.
Elegy vs. dirge
A dirge is very similar to an elegy in that it expresses grief or mourning but it’s a song or hymn. However, dirges are usually shorter than elegies and are often performed or sung at funeral services, while elegies tend to stay in written form. That said, if someone were to turn an elegy into a song, it would likely then be considered a dirge.
Elegy vs. epitaph
Epitaph is another funeral-related word that causes some confusion. Unlike the songs and poems on this list, an epitaph refers to the text written on one’s tombstone in memory of the deceased.
Sometimes an epitaph is just a few words, such as “rest in peace” or “in loving memory,” while other times it’s a longer, more descriptive phrase. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s epitaph reads, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last,” which is a nod to his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Elegy vs. obituary
An obituary is a notice of death usually published in the local newspaper. Unlike the poetic, sorrowful elegy, an obituary is typically a straightforward, biographical description of the deceased.
Usually written by a relative, an obituary covers when and where the person died, along with facts about their life and surviving family members, and information regarding the funeral or memorial service arrangements.
For instance, an obituary might start by saying, “George Stove peacefully passed away on January 12, 2022, in San Diego, California, surrounded by his wife and children.”
Visit our list of obituary examples for more information and templates.
What does eulogy mean?
A eulogy is a remembrance speech that honors someone who’s passed away. It’s similar to an ode because it’s celebratory in nature and praises the life of the deceased. However, it differs from an ode in that it’s not a lyrical poem and doesn’t follow any specific literary structure. The person writing the eulogy has creative freedom, but these kinds of speeches typically highlight the person’s accomplishments and special memories. Oftentimes, a close friend or relative of the deceased will write and deliver a eulogy dedicated to their loved one at a funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life.
Below is an excerpt from the eulogy Oprah Winfrey delivered at Rosa Parks’ funeral:
"And in that moment when you resolved to stay in that seat, you reclaimed your humanity, and you gave us all back a piece of our own. I thank you for that. I thank you for acting without concern. I often thought about what that took, knowing the climate of the times and what could have happened to you, what it took to stay seated. You acted without concern for yourself and made life better for us all. We shall not be moved. I marvel at your will. I celebrate your strength to this day. And I am forever grateful, Sister Rosa, for your courage, your conviction. I owe you to succeed. I will not be moved."
If you’re responsible for the eulogy for your loved one, review our guide on how to write a eulogy.
As you can see, there are many different words associated with honoring someone who has passed away, so it can be tricky to keep them all straight. If you have additional questions or need more clarification on what you want to share at a funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life for your loved one, don’t hesitate to ask those organizing the funeral arrangements for more guidance.