Selecting a Funeral Poem

When called on to provide a reading at the funeral of a loved one, many of us struggle to put into words the intensity of our feelings. One of the most powerful ways you can choose to convey your emotions is with a poem. For centuries, mankind has sought to condense into a few short stanzas the magnitude of their grief or their hope for the hereafter.

If you've been asked to provide a reading at a funeral service, and have decided that you would like to deliver a poem, there are many sources you can look through in your search for a piece that perfectly expresses what you're feeling. You may have an anthology of poetry classics at home, or you might look online or in your local library. However you go about it, you'll soon discover that there is a poem for every emotion. W.H. Auden's 'Funeral Blues' ("Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone") is an incredibly moving description of grief; Mary Elizabeth Frye's 'Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep' (which ends "Do not stand at my grave and cry/ I am not there I did not die") is more consolatory, reminding us of the way the dead still live among us.

Depending on the faith of the departed and the nature of the funeral service it is up to you to decide whether a religious or non-religious poem will be more appropriate. For a traditional, non-religious poem many people look to Shakespeare. A popular choice is to read out the song of Guiderius and Arviragus from Act 4, Scene 2 of Cymbeline:

"Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winters 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."

Alternatively, Christina Rossetti wrote several poems that are suitable for funeral services, such as 'Remember' ("Remember me when I am gone away / Gone far away into the silent land.") A 20th-century choice might be Dylan Thomas' angry 'Do not go gentle into that good night', written for his dying father.

You might feel that a religious poem is more appropriate, or offers more hope to those left behind with its vision of a hereafter. If so, then you need to choose between a straightforward Bible reading - for example Psalms 23, which starts "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," and contains the immortal line "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" - or a poem with a religious or spiritual dimension. Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar' is frequently used, for its talk of death as "putting out to sea" and its expressed hope of coming face-to-face with "my Pilot".

If the form of service allows it, and those closest to the deceased approve your choice, then you might want to go with something more alternative. This could be something funny, or something personal to the deceased. Or if you are yourself of a poetic bent you could try your hand at writing a few verses yourself: this is undoubtedly a challenging task, but can be a good way to honour the specific memory of your loved one.

Once you have chosen or written your poem, then you need to practise it. You need to be confident that you can deliver it perfectly as, with poetry in particular, every word counts. Stand up tall and speak slowly and clearly.

Whether religious or non-religious, hopeful or sad, a poem can make for an incredibly moving funeral reading. If chosen carefully, it is a beautiful way of celebrating the life of a loved one, of mourning their passing and of voicing hope in a hereafter.

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