Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Choosing the right poem for a funeral can be a difficult task. How can you find the best poem to strike the right note at the funeral of a loved one, a close friend or member of the family? Below, we introduce ten of the most popular poems to be read at funerals. These poems are, by turns, poems of defiance, poems of mourning, and poems of reassurance in which the dead address the living and tell them not to worry. We hope these funeral poem suggestions prove of use to someone, somewhere: they’re among our most favourite poems.
John Donne, ‘Death Be Not Proud’. We begin this pick of funeral poems with one from the great metaphysical poet, John Donne (1572-1631). In his later life, Donne wrote a series of Holy Sonnets, and this poem is perhaps just the right length for sharing as part of a funeral speech, in being not too long (it’s 14 lines). The poem sees Donne challenging Death, who is depicted as a male braggart, boasting about all of the people he’s killed. Not so, Donne responds: for those whom Death kills do not really ‘die’. It begins:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee …
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Crossing the Bar’. This was one of Tennyson’s last poems, composed in 1889, just three years before the end of a long life and prolific career. (He would be UK Poet Laureate for 42 years in total, from 1850 until 1892, a record never unsurpassed.) Given its elegiac tone, ‘Crossing the Bar’ has often been analysed or interpreted as Tennyson’s elegy for himself: it describes his anticipation of the ‘crossing’ he must make from life to death:
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar …
Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’. A tender poem written by Rossetti (1830-1894) when she was still a teenager, ‘Remember’ is a classic Victorian poem about mourning and remembrance. It was written in 1849 but not published until 1862 when it appeared in Rossetti’s first volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray …
Click on the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. Born in the same year as Rossetti, Dickinson was writing on the other side of Atlantic, although unlike Rossetti, most of her poems remained unpublished during her lifetime. Many of Dickinson’s poems touch upon the subject of death, but here she went one further, personifying it as Death and offering a beautifully cryptic response to the event that must come for all of us:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun …
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Requiem’. In just eight short lines, the author of Treasure Island (who was also a fine poet as well) offers the perfect epitaph for someone who has passed over to the other side: death is not a loss, but simply a returning home.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Oscar Wilde, ‘Requiescat’. A tender poem written about Wilde’s own sister, ‘Requiescat’ has a Latin title which means literally ‘may he or she rest in peace’. The poem seems designed for funerals:
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest …
A. E. Housman, ‘Epitaph’. Like Dickinson, the English poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was much possessed by death, and perhaps no English poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote so simply yet so movingly about dying. As this is an epitaph, it’s the ideal poem to recite at a funeral or memorial service. Here’s the poem in full:
Stay, if you list, O passer by the way;
Yet night approaches; better not to stay.
I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow,
Nor grieve to think how ill God made me, now.
Here, with one balm for many fevers found,
Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.
Mary Elizabeth Frye, ‘Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep’. One of the most popular poems to be read at funeral services, this poem dates from the early twentieth century and sees the speaker entreating the loved ones she leaves behind not to mourn for her.
W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’. No list of great funeral poems would be complete without this, surely? Written in 1936 (actually as part of a play, in which the poem or song was designed to be a mockery of public obituaries), this poem has become a favourite at funeral services, thanks largely to its recital in the smash-hit 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The film also helped to give Auden’s posthumous reputation a shot in the arm. It’s a moving and technically adroit poem of mourning for someone loved and, now, lost.
Dylan Thomas, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. We’ll end this pick of funeral poems with a poem of defiance, written by the great twentieth-century poet Dylan Thomas. Written in 1933 while Thomas was still a teenager, and in response to a challenge issued by a friend, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, as its title suggests, is a poem about immortality, about triumphing over death.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.