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Funeral Poems

Top 10 Poems for a Funeral Ceremony

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss, Meaningful Funerals

Readings are a great way to enrich a funeral ceremony. As Dr. Wolfelt tells us, readings are an important element of the service because they speak to “word people,” help us search for meaning in the loss, and activate support.

Poems are a particularly powerful type of reading that contribute to what Wolfelt refers to as the “sweet spot” of a meaningful funeral experience. For this reason, we have included ten great poems that can enhance a funeral ceremony. If you are thinking of including a poetry reading in memory of a loved one, you may want to consider using one of these profound poems.

10. “Dear Lovely Death
         by Langston Hughes

Famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was a master of economy, and his “less is more” approach is perfectly realized in “Dear Lovely Death.” Hughes packs an extraordinary amount of insight into a mere 10 lines, and the result is a powerful and hopeful piece that speaks to funeral audiences. Hughes suggest that death does not destroy or eradicate, but merely changes the nature of those that it touches. The idea of death as change strikes an important balance for a funeral setting. Hopeful but not naïve, it allows us to see the situation in a more comforting light while never denying the reality of death.

9. “A Clear Midnight
       by Walt Whitman

This short piece by Whitman turns conventional poetic imagery on its head. While most poems use midnight to evoke negative, frightening emotions, Whitman sees the night as a time of calm and peace. When applied to a funeral setting, the flight of the soul “into the wordless” can be viewed as a metaphor for death, and this image touches mourners by depicting death as a place of rest.

8. “Death is a Door
       by Nancy Byrd Turner

Like “Dear Lovely Death,” Turner’s poem views death as a time of transition and change, and like “A Clear Midnight,” it emphasizes the calming nature of death. Through the use of nature imagery such as “garden” and “green leaves,” Turner evokes a sense of rejuvenation, and implies that death gives birth to new life, though we can’t yet see what this new life looks like. Turner’s assertion that the threshold of death is eagerly crossed by “willing and weary feet” implies that whatever lies on the other side of the doorway of death is more encouraging than frightening.

7. “Requiem
       by Robert Louis Stevenson

Few people know that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novels Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, also penned one of the greatest poems about death. The short and simple “Requiem” is written from the perspective of the deceased, who is clearly satisfied with the life that he lived. “Glad did I live and gladly die,” he proudly claims, and his contentment regarding the journey from life to death is comforting and encouraging. Families who feel that their loved one lived a full and wonderful life may consider using this poem at the service to remind themselves that their loved one is at peace.

6. “The Road Not Taken”
       by Robert Frost

One of the most famous poems of all time, Robert Frost’s masterpiece is not in a strict sense a “funeral poem.” It isn’t specifically about death, and it doesn’t attempt to encourage mourners or to ponder the transience of life. But it’s a wonderful tribute to a life well lived. The closing lines, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” are a testament to a person that broke the mold and embraced life to the fullest. If you are looking for a piece that celebrates the unique life of your loved one, consider reading this ode to originality.

5. Success
       by Bessie Anderson Stanley *

Another poem that deals less with death than with the celebration of a life, this famous essay-turned-poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley analyzes the true meaning of success. Success is not embodied in a person who chased after shallow achievements such as popularity or material wealth, but rather by a person who “laughed often, and loved much,” and “left the world better than he found it.” A fitting tribute to the life of a loved one who understood the true value of life and spent his or her time engaged in honorable pursuits, this classic poem will bring encouragement to funeral audiences and allow them to reflect on the meaningful life of the deceased.

4. “When Great Trees Fall
       by Maya Angelou

This extraordinary work by the late Maya Angelou emphasizes the ripple effect that is created by the death of a great person. Angelou suggests that the deep hurt that we feel when losing a loved one is a testament to the brilliance of that individual’s life. While grief may hurt, it is an important indicator that the loved one made a difference and positively impacted the lives of others. The poem suggests that the time of grief is extremely difficult, but that “after a period peace blooms.” As we move through the grief journey, we come to accept the reality of the death and are able to recall the memories of the deceased to motivate us as we continue to find meaning in our lives.

3. “Death, Be Not Proud
       by John Donne

Perhaps the most famous poem to address mortality, John Donne’s 17th century classic is a tightly structured and perfectly realized refutation of the permanence of death. In a mere 14 lines, Donne sets out to bruise Death’s ego, and his skill matches his ambition. He challenges death by comparing it to rest and sleep, “which but thy pictures be.” While death marks a stronger transition than sleep, Donne views both states as temporary. The final line, “Death, thou shalt die,” indicates Donne’s strong belief in an afterlife. For this reason, “Death, Be Not Proud” is a great choice for religious ceremonies. It is important to realize that Donne’s poem shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the reality of death in this world; death separates us from our loved ones, and it is okay to grieve. Rather, it should encourage those who are religious by reminding them that the soul of their loved one is at peace.

2.”If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking
by Emily Dickinson

In this compact, seven-line poem, Dickinson doesn’t waste time on flowery language or indulgent imagery. Her approach to the material is clear, concise, and direct. The primary theme of the poem is the importance of love, which trumps all other human virtues. The speaker claims that if she can help another living being, then she “shall not live in vain.” The size of the act is less important than the intention behind the act. A person need not have his or her good deeds recognized as grand accomplishments to live a great life. Rather, living a full and meaningful life is accomplished by spreading love wherever and however one can. Dickinson’s heartfelt poem is a great choice for the funeral of a loved one who dedicated their life to helping others.

1. Psalm 23
    A Psalm of David, The Book of Psalms (KJV)

The most famous and revered of all the psalms speaks directly to our desire for peace, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. Psalm 23 is perfect for a funeral ceremony because it applies as well to the mourners as it does to the deceased. When David claims, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” he’s expressing a sentiment that not only encourages us when thinking about a dearly departed loved one, but also gives us the strength to continue on our grief journey. The “valley of the shadow of death” can refer to those who are making the transition from life to death and to those who are trying to face life after losing a loved one. For religious ceremonies, this is a wonderful choice, a beautiful testament to God’s ability to bring comfort and peace to his children in dark times. A cry of faith amidst the storms of life, Psalm 23 is the perfect funeral reading.

 

 

*”Success” is often incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, usually with the inclusion of the famous line: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

 

 

 

“A Clear Midnight”

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

“A Clear Midnight”
  by Walt Whitman

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

“Death, Be Not Proud”

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

Death, Be Not Proud”
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

“The Road Not Taken”

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

“The Road Not Taken”
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“Requiem”

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

“Requiem”
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

“Success”

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

Success”
By Bessie Anderson Smith*

He has achieved success
who has lived well,
laughed often, and loved much;

who has enjoyed the trust of
pure women,

the respect of intelligent men and
the love of little children;

who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

who has left the world better than he found it
whether by an improved poppy,
a perfect poem or a rescued soul;

who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;

who has always looked for the best in others and
given them the best he had;

whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

 

 

*This poem is often incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, usually with the inclusion of the famous line: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Psalm 23

By | Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss

Psalm 23
David, The Book of Psalms (KJV)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

 

Celebrating World Poetry Day: How Poetry Can Help You on Your Grief Journey

By | Exclude from Top Posts, Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss, Seasonal

World Poetry Day

While you may not know it, today is World Poetry Day, which provides us with a great opportunity to talk about the important role that poetry can play in the grieving process. Sadly, poetry readings are becoming less and less popular in everyday life, but they are still widely used in important rituals and ceremonies, including funerals. Our willingness to turn to poetry to mark events of great importance indicates that we still understand the power of poetry and are drawn to it, even though we only turn to it on rare occasions.

What’s So Great About Poetry?

A great poem captures essential truths about the human condition. Through the precise arrangement of a few carefully chosen words, the poet explores universal themes and attempts to encapsulate an aspect of human experience. Good poetry is relatable. Writing it allows us to express ourselves to others, and reading it cultivates empathy and reminds us of what we have in common. Poetry reminds us of what it means to be human–to feel joy and pain, to laugh and to cry, to celebrate the wonders of life and to fear our mortality. In this way, it connects us to the people around us.

Reading Poetry to Enhance a Funeral Service

In a funeral setting, poetry reading can be a powerful ritual that honors the life of the loved one and strengthens the bonds between those who mourn. Whether the poems chosen are mournful or inspirational and uplifting, they can serve as an opportunity to reflect on the life of the deceased. Funeral poems can help us search for meaning in the loss and can bring us into a state of contemplation. Poetry reading is a communal experience: it allows everybody who is present to share a profound moment together.

Therapeutic Benefits of Reading Poetry

Poetry can also be useful after the ceremony, in the weeks, months, even years after the loss of a loved one. Studies suggest that any form of reading can be therapeutic and poetry can be especially useful because of its contemplative, even spiritual, qualities. The grief journey is not linear. Long after the loved one has passed, sporadic periods of intense grief can crop up. During these difficult times, it might be useful to consider reading some poems. The poetryfoundation.org is a great place to start.

Writing Your Own Poetry

In addition to reading poetry at a ceremony or in private, you may also find it helpful to write some poetry of your own. Grief experts consider grief journaling to be a healthy way to channel painful emotions, and writing poetry can function as a sophisticated form of journaling. Poetry writing is a healthy means of self-expression that allows you to better process your thoughts and to comprehend what you are feeling. The great poet Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In short, poetry helps us to better understand our emotions, which can be incredibly useful during times of grief, when we experience confusing or paradoxical emotions. Mourning through creative imagery can be incredibly cathartic. By putting your feelings into words, you open the door to self-discovery.

Using Poetry as a Place of Refuge

Not all of the poems that you use during the grieving process have to deal directly with death. While poetry can be an effective outlet for dealing with painful emotions, it can also provide an opportunity to find refuge from the pain and stress that comes with daily life in the aftermath of a loss. Taking a few moments out of your day to read some soothing poetry can be refreshing. Consider going to a favorite spot, where you can read or write peacefully without distractions. You may find that this activity calms your mind and works to relieve stress in a manner that is similar to meditation.

Try It!

If you have recently experienced the pain of losing a loved one, consider utilizing poetry in some form to help you on your grief journey. Whether you’re thinking about incorporating poetry into a funeral service, looking for poems to read personally, or considering writing some poems of your own, find ways to take advantage of the benefits that poetry can offer.

 

How do Readings Enhance the Funeral Experience?

By | Dr. Wolfelt Videos, Funeral Poems, Meaningful Funerals | No Comments

In this video, Dr. Wolfelt discusses the purpose of readings in a funeral setting. Group readings contribute to the service in meaningful ways:

Speak to “Word People”

A good funeral ceremony incorporates many different elements to reach a wide variety of people and to offer a unique way of honoring the life of an individual. Music, symbols, actions, and readings each offer a special touch to the service. Some people respond strongly to the written word, and these mourners benefit greatly from a public reading.

Help Us Search for Meaning in Loss

Often, the words read at a funeral bring mourners into a state of contemplation because the words relate very specifically to the life of a loved one and to the meaning that he or she brought into people’s lives. In addition, familiar readings can bring continuity to families. Similar readings may be passed down from funeral to funeral within a family, and this familiarity can bring a level of comfort.

Activate Support

The readings chosen for a funeral service often stress the necessity of support. When groups read together at a service, we are reminded that we are not alone, and that we can fall back on a network of caring people. It is essential that those who are beginning the grieving process are provided with a sense of love and security from the people around them.

 


Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is an author, educator, and grief counselor with over 30 years of experience working with bereaved families. He has written many best-selling books on grief and loss, including Healing Your Grieving Heart and The Journey Through Grief. Dr. Wolfelt serves as the Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Visit him online at www.centerforloss.com.