Joe Biden has been dubbed “King of the Eulogy” and the “Designated Mourner.” He’s delivered so many funeral orations that he quipped, during a remembrance for his friend Frank Lautenberg, former U.S. senator from New Jersey, “Never make a good eulogy. You’ll be asked again and again and again.”
Biden’s ability to display empathy is often traced to the family tragedies that shaped the vice president’s life: his first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash in 1972, shortly after he was elected to the Senate, and his son Joseph “Beau” Biden III died of cancer in 2015 at the age of forty-six. Biden had a brush with death himself in 1988 when he underwent surgery for a potentially lethal brain aneurysm, and received last rites from a Catholic priest.
His style of eulogizing, both warmly personal and yet authoritative, no doubt draws from the well of his suffering. Sometimes, that’s very clear, as when he spoke at a 2011 commemoration of those killed on 9/11 aboard the hijacked airliner that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. “I say now to the families that are gathered here today, I know what it’s like to receive that call out of the blue, like a bolt out of the blue. And I know this is a bittersweet moment for you,” Biden told the victims’ relatives. “And I want to tell you, you have a lot more courage than I had. You have a lot more courage just by being here today, because I know, and many others know, how hard it is to relive these moments, because it brings everything back in stark, stark relief and stark detail.”
Less noticed is that Biden also draws deeply on his Catholic faith. His focus on common, shared suffering is recognized by many as a gift, but perhaps it is a grace as well. Its form and source, if not strictly theological, are at a minimum culturally Catholic and distinctly Irish-American. His eulogies are built on themes of redemption and forgiveness, as well as amazement at the dignity of each human being. He aims to bolster community—an important element of a good eulogy according to Cicero, who wrote that “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
Biden’s June eulogy for George Floyd came to a soaring conclusion with his use of the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”: “May God be with you, George Floyd, and your family. And [in] the words of a hymn from my church based on the 91st Psalm, may he ‘raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn and make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hand.’ God bless you all. God bless you all.”
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