How to Choose the Best Funeral Poems
The poet Brian Patten makes the observation that a lot of people say they don’t like poetry but at times of stress end up going to poetry. What poetry does best, he adds, is to remind us of things that are important when the world emotionally overtakes us. These days because so many funerals are non-religious, whether strictly humanist or more loosely spiritual, choosing the right funeral poems has become much more significant.
Funerals poems like music convey emotion and they can establish an emotional tone or mood. They can also stand in for prayers and bring depth to a funeral service which otherwise might feel rather lightweight or lacking.
Poetry is always subjective
Our appreciation of poetry is subjective and a poem which I like may be very different from a poem which someone else likes. If you google funeral poems, a whole range of websites come up. Many are familiar like “Do not stand at my grave and weep” or “You can shed tears that she has gone”. Others are famous like “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden which was used in the film ‘Four weddings and a funeral” or “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. Patten himself has written a poem called “So many different lengths of time” which can be read to great effect at a funeral.
In my experience as a celebrant, there are different kinds of poem suitable for the different stages of a funeral service. Some work well like a reading in saying something about the person who has died, the life they lived and their beliefs. Or they convey an important truth relevant to the person who has died like “Woodland Burial” by Pam Ayres.
Others mark the moment of saying good-bye which happens during the committal. An example of this might be Wendell Berry’s “He goes free of the earth,” Anne Bronte’s “Farewell” or “O beautiful end” by Rabindranath Tagore. Others still are more like a blessing or summation to be read at the end of the funeral. My personal favourite is “Parta Quies” by A. E. Housman but others might prefer a poem like “Afterglow” by Carol Mirkel, “The sun has set for me” by Robyn Rancman or “If I should go” by Joyce Grenfell.
There is a final use of poetry which takes the form of the well-chosen phrase: for example, “Maybe death isn’t darkness after all but so much light wrapping itself around us” from a poem by Mary Oliver. I sometimes use this particular phrase right at the end of a funeral service, almost like inserting a full stop or setting a seal on all that has happened and been said.