How to Choose a Funeral Poem
It has become something of a tradition to read out a poem at a funeral service. Poems are emotional and evocative pieces of literature which are a great mode through which to express emotion and meaning in the context of a funeral.
The Religious Poem
Thanks to our very literate predecessors, there are libraries full of religious poems to choose from. In English, Christian poetry is the most dominant strain. Victorian Christian poetry is particularly poignant, and a popular choice for Christian funeral services today. Christina Rossetti is a brilliant poet to draw from, having written hundreds of beautiful religiously-oriented poems about death. You might try Rossetti’s ‘Sweet Death’:
The sweetest blossoms die.
And so it was that, going day by day
Unto the church to praise and pray,
And crossing the green church-yard thoughtfully,
I saw how on the graves the flowers
Shed their fresh leaves in showers;
And how their perfume rose up to the sky
Before it passed away.
The youngest blossoms die.
They die, and fall, and nourish the rich earth
From which they lately had their birth.
Sweet life: but sweeter death that passeth by,
And is as tho’ it had not been.
All colors turn to green:
The bright hues vanish, and the odours fly;
The grass hath lasting worth.
And youth and beauty die.
So be it, O my God, thou God of truth.
Better than beauty and than youth
Are saints and angels, a glad company:
And Thou, O lord, our rest and Ease,
Are better far than these.
Why should we shrink from our full harvest ?
Why Prefer to glean with Ruth
Another popular funeral choice is Rossetti’s ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, which is not explicitly religious, presents an ambivalent and peaceful perspective on death:
When I am dead, my dearest
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.
The Non-Religious Poem
Despite the vast historical background for religious funeral poetry, modern and contemporary writers have created their own canon of pieces by which to approach the subject of death without reference to religion.
‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin expresses much of the modern sentiment towards death; including the questioning of religion and facing the utter inevitability of death through one’s wandering consciousness:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Funerals are just as much about life as they are death. Some may prefer not to give reference to death itself when reciting a poem at a funeral. There a plenty of poems to choose from that are suitable content for funerals as life-affirming pieces of literature.
This poem by Emily Dickinson offers a hopeful worldview and a positive image of the future (and of the poetic form) which is bound to uplift a mournful audience:
I dwell in Possibility – (466)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
When it comes to browsing for suitable poems to be read at funerals, sites such as Poetry Foundation are a brilliant place to start. The internet offers an infinite online-library of material that is at your disposal. A great way to decipher which poem is right for the occasion is to practice reading them aloud; poems are written to be spoken as well as to be read, and it is easier to feel their poignancy when they are heard.
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