01 Oct 6 Poems for Funerals
Choosing a Poem for a Funeral
Funerals are important moments at which we remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones. One of the most common difficulties people have with planning a ceremony is finding the balance between celebration and mourning. Some elements of the ceremony will be uplifting, while others are saddening, but the important thing to remember is that a funeral is a safe space for grieving, sharing memories and reflecting on the life that has passed. Funeral poems offer perspectives on bereavement, grief and life which can be helpful to share with friends and family.
Most funeral services involve a reading, which may be from a religious text or secular. A poem creates a poignant moment for reflection, and there are plenty of secular and religious poems from which to choose. Poetry is a popular choice because it describes that which cannot be described literally. Funeral poems can unpack some of the feelings in the room, offer a friendly word of support, or help someone feel less alone in mourning. Funeral poems question what it is to live and to lose people, and remind us that those who we have loved will live on in our memories. Here we have chosen six secular funeral poems to help you choose.
Philip Larkin – An Arundel Tomb
Philip Larkin is not known for romantic or beautiful poetry, but the last line of this poem resonates: “What will survive of us is love.” The poem describes a medieval tomb, decorated with stone effigies. Larkin imagines the couple’s choice to be depicted holding hands and how the meaning of these elaborate tombs changes over time. The clasped hands carved in stone are the feature which retains its meaning through the centuries, while all else is worn away or becomes absurd. This poem is ambiguous in tone, but highlights the human ‘almost-instinct’ that the love we share is what deserves to be remembered.
An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Christina Rossetti – Song
Christina Rossetti wrote a wealth of poems encouraging loved ones to remember her with happiness after she passes away. Her use of natural imagery and rhythmic lines can be comforting to listeners, and her message is one of reassurance. It is ok to remember loved ones fondly, and it is OK to let them go.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set
Haply I may remember,,
And haply may forget.
Joyce Grenfell – You’ve Just Walked On Ahead of Me
This poignant and honest poem captures the difficult feeling of trying to live without someone after they have passed away. Beginning in the middle of a sentence, Grenfell gives a sense of this being just one of a long stream of thoughts on grieving, but one worth sharing. It offers strength and fortitude to those who hear it, and by imagining the person walking on ahead, gives a sense of their choice to move on, and their still being somewhere, ready to meet again.
You’ve Just Walked On Ahead of Me
And I’ve got to understand
You must release the ones you love
And let go of their hand.
I try and cope the best I can
But I’m missing you so much
If I could only see you
And once more feel your touch.
Yes, you’ve just walked on ahead of me
Don’t worry I’ll be fine
But now and then I swear I feel
Your hand slip into mine.
Mary Elizabeth Frye – Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep
Mary Elizabeth Frye’s only surviving poem has been read at countless funerals over the years, becoming a well-loved message to those who are mourning a loved one. Like Rossetti’s poem above, Frye uses images of the natural world to highlight that death is a part of life. It was written to comfort a family friend who was unable to visit the grave of their mother, reassuring them that a loved one can be remembered in any moment.
Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
WH Auden – Funeral Blues
Auden’s Funeral Blues is a passionate statement of love for someone who has passed away. It demands the world stop to highlight the sense that the person mourned was the world. The poem gives a sense that living beyond the death of someone loved with so much force is an impossibility. This may not reflect everyone’s feelings about death, but for those who are grieving in this way, Auden’s words offer a hand of friendship, reminding us that we are not alone in the darkness.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Denise Levertov – Talking to Grief
Finally, Denise Levertov’s poem Talking to Grief describes her relationship with mourning and learning to cope with the complexity of feeling after a loss. Rather than focussing on the person who has died, or the relationship with that person, this poem reads like good advice. Through an extended metaphor, Levertov transforms grief from something to be shooed away or ignored into something to be accepted and owned as a part of our person.
Talking to Grief
Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
my house your own
and me your person
my own dog.
Choosing a poem for a funeral can be emotional, so please take your time to choose what best represents how you feel, or what you want to share with other mourners during the ceremony.
It is sometimes helpful to have the poem printed in full in your Order of Service sheets, so that friends and family can read along or look back at the words later. However, if you can’t decide on a poem in time, it is perfectly reasonable to simply state that a poem or reading will occur at that stage in the service.
Make sure you give yourself or the person doing the reading time to get comfortable with the poem and read it through a few times out loud on their own. This can help with understanding of the emotions behind the words, and with confidence at the lectern.