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Poems please

Nicci Ball gives some examples of suitable advice about choosing a poems and readings for a funeral or memorial ceremony.

Preparing poems and readings can relieve the burden on our loved ones at a time when they are coming to terms with bereavement.

Leaving words behind that you have chosen is an opportunity to comfort your loved ones and offer a positive and uplifting message.

Where to find help

If you have been asked to read a poem or other suitable readings, the internet has increasing amounts of source material.

We recommend the following as they adhere to copyright laws and have lists of suitable poems. Remembrance Books has over 250 poems; Poemhunter includes funeral poems and Phoenix Ceremonies includes readings and poems.

Useful books

I recommend the following publications: Poems and Readings for Funerals, by Julia Watson; Do Not Go Gentle: Poems for Funerals, by Neil Astley; Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep, by Lucie Stowe; Complete Book Of Funeral Planning, Readings And Music, by Rachel Johnstone-Burt and Funeral Rites and Readings.

My choices 

If I Should Go
Joyce Grenfell’s (1910-1979) uplifting poem If I Should Go will definitely be read at the appropriate event to mark my end.

It encapsulates the sentiments I would like to express to the people I will one day leave behind. It strikes a positive note with her practical, yet comforting, poetic voice.

It is not overly sentimental and the last couplet manages to convey the grief we feel at parting but at the same time urges the bereaved to carry on and 'sing'.

When I read this poem it brings a smile to my face and tears to my eyes:

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor, when I am gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.

Weep, if you must, parting is hell,
But life goes on, so sing as well.

Death is Nothing At All
Whether religious or secular, poems offer comfort to our loved ones because although they acknowledge that death is a parting and a wrench they focus on the life and lived and the bonds we shared which cannot be erased because we are no longer in this world.

This is best expressed in Death is Nothing At All by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918):

Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away into the next room.

I am I, and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me
In that easy way that you always used.

Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me,
Let my name be ever be the household word
That it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
Without the trace of shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was;
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you, for an interval,
Somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.
All is well.

No Sorrow to Die
No Sorrow to Die by Amelia Josephine Barr, is a poem that has a religious foundation, but the sentiments expressing a deep gratitude for life ended and a soothing message that it has been a happy and fulfilled one are universal.

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky.
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed.
Because I have lived life, I have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young Love on the lips; I have heard his song to the end,
I have struck my hand like a seal in the loyal hand of a friend.
I have known the peace of heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task I must leave undone.
I know that no flower, nor flint was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life I have looked on God,
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
Another poem that will reduce unwanted sorrow is Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye (1904-2004).

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I did not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond that glints on snow.
I am the sunlight 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.

One of the great first world war poems by Siefgried Sassoon. Before joining up, he wrote romantic verse, and there are elements of the romantic in this, one of his first war poems, written in November 1914.

Sleep; and my song shall build about your bed
A paradise of dimness. You shall feel
The folding of tired wings; and peace will dwell
Throned in your silence: and one hour shall hold
Summer, and midnight, and immensity
Lulled to forgetfulness. For, where you dream,
The stately gloom of foliage shall embower
Your slumbering thought with tapestries of blue.
And there shall be no memory of the sky,
Nor sunlight with its cruelty of swords.
But, to your soul that sinks from deep to deep
Through drowned and glimmering colour, Time shall be
Only slow rhythmic swaying; and your breath;
And roses in the darkness; and my love.

Turn Again to Life
The message we want to leave behind for our loved ones should be of hope. Poetry can build a bridge between loss and love.

At the funeral of Princess Diana her elder sister read a poem by Mary Lee Hall (1847-1918) which urges the bereaved to Turn Again to Life.

If I should die and leave you here awhile
Be not like others sore undone
Who keeps long vigil by the silent dust.
For my sake turn again to life and smile
Nerving the heart and trembling hand
To do something to comfort other hearts than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine
And I perchance may therein comfort you.

But Not Forgotten
It is a selfless and generous person whose wish is for the partner they leave behind to consider future loves. But that is exactly what is expressed in this anonymous poem, But Not Forgotten.

I think no matter where you stray
That I shall go with you a way.
Though you may wander sweeter lands,
You will not forget my hands,
Nor yet the way I held my head
Nor the tremulous things I said.
You will still see me, small and white
And smiling, in the secret night,
And feel my arms about you when
The day comes fluttering back again.
I think, no matter where you be,
You’ll hold me in your memory
And keep my image there without me,
By telling later loves about me.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Funeral poetry with humour is a good way to lighten the mood, so consider this 'Old Irish Toast' which also has the much needed benefit of brevity.

May you have good food and rainment,
A soft pillow for your head,
May you be forty years in heaven
Before the devil knows you’re dead.’

Fear no more
This extract from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is suitable to express the peace that death has brought someone whose life has not been easy; who has faced and been affected by many troubles.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownéd be thy grave!

Lucy Berry is the resident poet on Jeremy Vine's BBC Radio 2 programme. She writes lovely approachable poems.

What's a good death? Good about death? 
Good about saying goodbye to breath? 
I am your land. You are my sky. 
How shall we speak a world's goodbye? 
How make good the cosmic ache 
Of universes going to break? 
How make good the final kiss, 
The final friend, the final bliss? 
How make good the final sight 
Of final day forever night? 
You quit the form I slept so near. 
And still you're dear. 
But am I, dear?

© Lucy Berry

All Things Will Die
A beautiful poem from Alfred Lord Tennyson that shows death is a part of life. 

All Things will Die
Clearly the blue river chimes in its flowing
Under my eye;
Warmly and broadly the south winds are blowing
Over the sky.
One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Full merrily;
Yet all things must die.

The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.

Spring will come never more.
O, vanity!
Death waits at the door.
See! our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d-we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.

The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall no more be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
O, misery!
Hark! death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.

The old earth
Had a birth,
As all men know,
Long ago.
And the old earth must die.
So let the warm winds range,
And the blue wave beat the shore;
For even and morn
Ye will never see
Thro’ eternity.
All things were born.
Ye will come never more,
For all things must die.

Funeral Blues
The W H Auden poem that was the stand out part of Four Weddings and A Funeral.

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 woods; 
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Dylan Thomas expresses the anger that day turns into night.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Religious Readings

Religious officiants and funeral directors can help direct you to a suitable reading such as this extract from Ecclesiastics, Chapter 3:

To everything there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven;
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war and a time of peace.

When not to consider poems

Catholics believe the funeral service should be focused on God and that the time for personal contributions from loved ones is at the wake.

Outside the Christian tradition the funeral event does not generally invite the participation of family and friends during the religious ceremony.  

However, poems and verses may still be appropriate on sympathy cards or in the context of a memorial service at a later date.

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Tim Whittingham edited on 8 May 13 at 5:24pm
Tim Whittingham

Ah Poetry - How people turn to poetry when they are struggling with emotion and self expression! Can I humbly and respectfully refer you to my own archive of readings and music for funerals at my site, www.timwhittingham.com ?

Susan Walker wrote on 4 Oct 12 at 1:16pm
Susan Walker

I would like I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra by Ishmael Reed. Brilliant imagery and it'll give everyone something to think about!

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