Bespoke poems as funeral eulogies

Charles 18 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Poems are often read at funerals.

Here are just a few, including WH Auden’s Funeral Blues, which moved many cinema-goers to tears when featured in Four Weddings… ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week and my Sunday rest…’

But are many celebrants confident enough in their word skills to craft a bespoke poem based on their understanding of a person’s character traits and unique story?

Helen Bennett advertises this service on her website. ‘There are many wonderful eulogy poems out there that are for general use, but for many people they can seem overused, impersonal and inappropriate,’ she says. ‘If you want something that really is very personal… then I can help you’.

It’s a shame she doesn’t post a few examples of her work to give us a flavour.

Above is The Dead by former US poet laureate Billy Collins. It doesn’t take the form of a eulogy about a specific person, but it evokes a soothing image of the after-life and comes with an animation for the YouTube generation.

And here’s my attempt at a sonnet of iambic pentameter, again unspecific, and more concerned about rhyming than moving.

We do not know

We do not know when or how we shall die.
Will we even have time to say goodbye?
A deadly disease or quick accident,
In peaceful sleep or by something violent?

We do not know where we go at the end.
Heaven, Hell, Nowhere, or does it depend?
How do we prepare for this great mystery,
What acts and beliefs define our history?

We do not know why we love or hate so
Until we acknowledge it all has to go.
Life matters more because Death’s at the door,
Merging as one with eternity’s law.

We do not know when or how we shall die,
May God give us grace for our final sigh.


  1. Charles

    Richard: when I did my celeb course we were told (on pain of death or something similar) NEVER to write poems for our ceremonies. It’s a different matter of course for bereaved family and friends. They write their poems from the heart but, on the downside, in their determination to make them rhyme the sentiments often defy sense and logic. But that’s better than when people create a new poem by cutting and pasting two or three poems together and then claim to have written it.
    Respect to you for having a go!

    1. Charles

      A Celeb, you should have trained where I did! (BHA, in case you wondered). For our funeral script, we were asked to imagine a teenage girl who died from the effects of bulimia, so I had my family ‘find’ a poem she’d written – my trainer asked if she could keep it to use for a real funeral.

      Your texture and your taste enticed me,
      telling me, ‘be free’;
      reclining in the dish, so nicely
      titillating me.

      What sweet, seductive salivation
      held you to my tongue –
      until contempt soured our relation
      you and I were one.

      But! Desperate, depraved distortion
      was your true intent;
      the world to witness my contortion
      really what you meant.

      Now, wary or your ways and wiles,
      I purge your foul destruction;
      you’ll not devour me by your guile –
      get out! you crass deception.

      1. Charles

        J: no amount of training would turn me into a poet. But I’m good at personalised limericks! Could come in handy…one day.

        1. Charles

          Yes, A Celeb, I’m still waiting for the chance to use this one:

          A medical student at Barts
          was devoid of his most vital parts,
          which fact was a throwback
          to an instance of blowback
          that occurred when igniting his farts.

          (I may have to wait a lot longer.)

          1. Charles

            Jonathan, I may be able to trump that, if you’ll forgive the expression, with this little offering. I imagine it being read by either Brian Blessed or the vicar from The Curse of the Wererabbit.

            Let me tell you a tale, of toiletry type,
            At which only the foolish will scoff,
            Evil was walking abroad that night,
            For I was touching cloth.

            Of ales I had drunk a plenty,
            And eaten of roasted fatty meat,
            Gorged on pork pie and sausage rolls,
            Finished off with cream filled sugary sweets.

            And so I waited, a King under siege,
            Perched on a porcelain throne,
            A gnawing was deep in my stomach,
            Like a dog with a well favoured bone.

            A deep fart sounded throughout the house,
            An ungodly clinging smell,
            Children, take to your rooms and pray,
            Father has the bowels from Hell!

            I heard someone choking, gasping for breath,
            Followed by a wail of despair,
            It came forth from my faithful wife,
            Who awaited her turn on the stair.

            I sent out a desperate call to arms,
            Which no-one appeared to have heard,
            I knew I had to stand and fight alone,
            With this evil Richard the Third.

            And so I finished my battle,
            At least an hour on the throne,
            My legs had turned as to jelly,
            As though they were formed with no bone.

            So let this tale be a warning,
            Children learn this lesson well,
            Pay heed to what your Father eats,
            Lest he develop the bowels from Hell!

  2. Charles

    Ah yes, the triumph of rhyme over reason. Given that a eulogy is created by a process of selection and distillation, I’d have thought that halfway decent wordsmiths should feel licensed to give it a go. Sure, this would only give a green light to the doggerel brigade, but it’s likely their prose is no better than it ought to be, either.

    1. Charles

      Charles: ooh harsh! When the ceremony’s done and dusted I doubt if anyone remembers a word I’ve said but I hope they remember that it felt right.

  3. Charles

    I confess to writing funeral poetry, and since there is only myself to read it the spelling mistakes are irrelevant. One has become almost a millstone round my neck, such has been it’s popularity with families I now hesitate to offer it to them as I, and surely the FD, am sick of hearing it.
    One thing I noticed was a distinct lack of, or perhaps it was my inability to find any, poems for specific circumstances.
    For example, I was challenged by a friend and fellow celebrant to write one for a single parent, which obviously has to be gender neutral, and from the perspective of one child or many.
    I wrote two for children, one for a baby of pre-toddler age and one for any age group, the latter used at a large funeral for a teenage canoeist who passed away and the family were delighted with it. I know because the celebrant that used it told me so,
    Then there is the problem of what I call “accessibility”, as in the style in which they are written, and the words used, often make them as meaningful as a page of Greek to some families.
    This is not intellectual snobbery, this is fact based upon experience and the reality that educational standards have dropped in this country over the last 30 odd years or so.
    I have written perhaps half a dozen or so poems for families, and I’ll confess it has been when no appropriate readings exist for such specialist circumstances. The odd one has been what we might call Hallmark Cards standard, but the families loved them because, in their way, it said what they wanted.

  4. Charles

    Hm. I have to declare an interest; or perhaps it’s something else. I’m a poet (yes, published real books) & when I started as a celebrant, I thought I’d be reading lots of great poetry (not mine) at ceremonies. What I’ve realised is that great poetry is not what most families want. Quite understandably, in these circs they don’t want the sense of surprise and discovery; they want something that feels familiar and reassuring. So – like most celebrants,I imagine – I’ve spent a lot of time reading poems people have found online, often written by other bereaved people. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s simply a different genre, with different criteria: not much detail that’s specific to the writer’s situation, nothing controversial. As a celebrant I respect that tit’s their choice: but on the odd occasion I get to read some Shakespeare or Auden, I do admit to a sigh of relief.

  5. Charles

    Ruth, is your poetry of funereal type? I confess I never admit to families I wrote a poem until at least after the ceremony and only then if they ask. I try to offer a balance of readings to my families if they haven’t got anything in mind, and yes, my stuff gets knocked back 🙂

  6. Charles

    Ruth, I think you’re right – it is a different genre, or sub-genre. The “is it poetry?” sort of discussion gets us nowhere. “Does it work?” is more to the point, perhaps.

    I’ve occasionally altered a few words of a poem to fit the dead person – mostly gender, he to she or vice versa. As a poet yourself, do you think that’s acceptable?

    One way to broaden the range of poetry chosen by the family, is to get in first and offer them a choice from one’s own stock – whilst adding that of course any independent choice of theirs takes priority. Might have avoided a few Scott-Hollands or Charles’ favourite DNSBMGAW!

    But – if it works for them, whatever it is, it’s good.

  7. Charles

    I find I that rarely use poetry at a funeral, and that it isn’t missed. Sometimes, someone has come up with something they want to read themselves, or occasionally for me to read, but generally when I ask if they’d like to think about poetry they say ‘no’. I certainly don’t suggest a particular poem as I believe that’d be my own preferences influencing things; I’ve seen happen with some celebrants.

    So, I wonder, does poetric choice have something to do with our approach? Am I discouraging it, or others requiring it, against the family’s true wishes?

  8. Charles

    I don’t know how much we’re influencing the result. I find sometimes people look at me as if I’ve suggested conducting the ceremony in Sanskrit; but quite often people have already found poems or written their own. I go along with a selection that I think may appeal, but DNSAMGAW often trumps them.

    As for editing.. s/he I think is no problem. I wince when people add something crass to a good poem; but in principle i think (like the postman in the film about Neruda) that once a poem goes out in the world, it belongs to whoever can use it. Which is not to say I want other people to claim the credit..

    Lol, my poems are often pretty funereal, but really not suited to funerals.

  9. Charles

    Thanks Ruth. Jonathan, I don’t force a poem on them against their wishes, for goodness’ sake! I ask if they would like some poetry or a prose extract, and then offer some suggestions. Require it? Of course not. You’re quite right, it would be inexcusable to impose our own preferences on a family – but yes, I think how we present the idea of a poem or a prose passage influences whether the family think it’s appropriate, or simply – Sanskrit!

  10. Charles

    Poetic eulogies can be kept very simple. Here’s a revisit to a poem on the tomb of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. In a few unremarkable verses, it captures him as a good egg, explains his musical career and his family life. All that matters really. This is also an excuse to play agent to Tallis’s unbelievably beautiful music on the link, too. GM and Jed agree. Listen and weep:

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