Bespoke poems as funeral eulogies

Charles Cowling


 

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.

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Richard
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Richard

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:
https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2013/01/for-the-glory-of-the-world-gloria-mundi/

gloria mundi
Guest

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!

Ruth Valentine
Guest

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… Read more »

Lol Owen
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Lol Owen

Care to share?

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

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?

gloria mundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Lol Owen
Guest

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 🙂

Ruth Valentine
Guest

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… Read more »

Lol Owen
Guest
Lol Owen

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… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

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!

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

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… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

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

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

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.)

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

You never know J – this would suit a lot of doctors I know.

Lol Owen
Guest
Lol Owen

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… Read more »