Lonely Funerals: Compassionate Verses

It’s been a while since we posted on the GFG Blog, but this weekend, we heard about a project in Scotland that is too important not to share with our readers.

Michael Hannah is an independent funeral celebrant based in Dundee. He has generously written this guest post for us.

For many of us, the idea of a good funeral evokes images of a packed crematorium or a crowded graveside. Of course the readers of this blog are likely to have considered more deeply than most, exactly what constitutes a “good funeral”. But our ideas will usually involve people – friends and family gathering together to mourn, honour and celebrate a life. 

Sadly, this ideal is not always realized; some of us will die alone, and for a small minority, no-one turns up for that final send-off. As a celebrant, I quickly came to recognize the sharp poignancy of the sparsely attended ceremony, the “nearly lonely” funeral.

Then, as a student on Glasgow University’s End of Life studies MSc, I read about a Lonely Funeral project in the Netherlands. This began in 2001, when the poet Bart Droog started to attend these sad events to which no-one else came. He honoured them with poems inspired by whatever biographical details existed. Poetry is well suited to creating stories out of fragments – a photograph, a passport, a police report. 

The idea spread and now operates in several Dutch and Belgian cities. An anthology of the poems and back stories has been published. These stories offer insights into how people arrive at such a lonely end to their life – social isolation through ageing, mental health issues, homelessness, marginalization.

Such issues are hardly unique to the Netherlands, so I wondered if similar initiatives existed in Scotland and the UK. It seemed not, though everyone I spoke to about the project told me what a beautiful and moving idea it was.

And then I met a local poet, Andy Jackson, who already knew about the project, having heard one of the Dutch founders speak at a festival in St Andrews. Together we decided to invest a little more energy and organization into the idea, and in November last year, held an event as part of the To Absent Friends storytelling festival. That provoked a lot of media interest – locally and nationally – and created a sense of momentum.

Projects like this take their time to develop though – there are sensitivities to be negotiated, and trust to be built with potential local gatekeepers and champions. But early in May we conducted what we think is the first Lonely Funeral to be held in Scotland. A quiet, sad but dignified moment in a cemetery on the outskirts of Dundee. The gleaming black hearse pulled up at the grave, the funeral directors and cemetery staff lowered the coffin, Andy read the poem he’d written in just two days from the little that was known, I stood a little way back with the case worker from social services. Afterwards, we chatted for a little while and then all drifted off. Back at his desk, Andy posted a report for Lapidus Scotland, the organization that has been supporting this project.

In time, the grass will grow back and the grave will lie unmarked. A few days after the funeral, as we chatted about how it had gone, Andy remarked on the sadness of that lonely patch of grass but said that at least the poem would serve as a headstone. Yes, Andy, and what a headstone!


Inghels, M. & Starik, F., 2018. The Lonely Funeral: Poets at the gravesides of the forgotten. Todmorden: Arc Publications. [English translation]

The Poem

For Derek

I step into the boxroom of your life,
tiptoe round the shrouded furniture,
shapeless islands on the exposed floor.

Who lived in this room, and what kind of light
fell through its window before the fixtures
and fittings of time could bear no more?

I cannot know, and yet am drawn to the walls,
sandwiched with paper and emulsion,
layer on layer, overlain with eggshell years.

I tug at a peeling edge and pull, and a small
corner tears away in my hand. I imagine
you with your brush and bright paint, here

in the midst of what you were, applying
primer, undercoat, topcoat, glossing
and touching up, each coat a moment

preserved: maybe damage you were trying
to make good, or faith in the face of closing
doors, working the quiet job with devotion.

Here are the patterns of a family, of love
built up but somehow broken. Below
is the lining paper of a childhood, too dark

to be a colour. Below that, I cannot look,
and so I will put away my pen and go
from this room, empty now as a stilled heart.

Let these words know a painter’s touch,
and their simple strokes be just enough
to show the world the keenness of your brush.

Andy Jackson, May 2023




by Catherine Smith

Dying, darling, is the easy bit. Fifty paracetamol,
bride-white and sticking in the throat, ten shots
of Johnny Walker, and the deed is done.
A twilight day of drowsing, then the breathing
slows to a whisper, like a sinner in Confession.

Death is dead easy. No, what happens next
is the difficulty. You bastard, howling in public,
snivelling over photos, ringing round for consolation.
And you have me burnt, like a dinner gone wrong,
you keep the charred remains of me on show

at the Wake, inviting everyone I hate. Oh God,
they come in packs, sleek as rats with platitudes
and an eye on my half of the bed, hoping to find
leftover skin, a hint of fetid breath. I leave them
no hairs on the pillow; there are none to leave.

And a year to the day since I shrug off the yoke
of life, you meet the new bride. In group therapy.
You head straight for a weeper and wailer,
telling strangers all her little tragedies. You love
the way she languishes, her tears sliming your neck,

you give in to her on vile pink Austrian blinds.
The Wedding is a riot of white nylon; Everybody
drinks your health and hers, the simpering bitch.
She and Delia Smith keep you fat and happy
as a pig in shit. I want her cells to go beserk.

Some nights I slip between you. The new bride
sleeps buttoned-up, slug-smug in polyester. You,
my faithless husband, turn over in your dreams,
and I’m there, ice-cold and seeking out your eyes
and for a moment you brush my lips, and freeze.

Reproduced with the permission of the author.


Teenage Room
by Paul Wooldridge

My mother speaks in detail,
I avoid her tired gaze
and stare at local headlines,
folded double down the page.

She talks of calls and records,
staying strong and on the go.
I know I should be helping,
be of use, keep up the show.

I only want to slope off,
all alone, to my own room
and hide away in silence
seeking comfort in the gloom.

But there’s no place to run now,
no retreat to my warm bed,
for I have just turned thirty
and my father’s three days dead.


Widow’s Villanelle
by Paul Wooldridge

Beneath the darkened upper floors
you smile and wave, left on your own,
with stillness waiting through each door.

Redundant now, your faithful chores,
that once supported fragile bone
beneath the darkened upper floors.

That one is left is nature’s flaw.
The tiring days and nights alone
with stillness waiting through each door.

The silence, that and little more.
Few visitors, a silent phone
beneath the darkened upper floors.

The family home, though once adored,
lies hollow now that kids are grown,
just stillness waiting through each door.

The future, stretching out, is yours,
its emptiness, its constant tone
beneath the darkened upper floors,
with stillness waiting through each door.


This is the second poem we have have published by Paul Wooldridge. You can find the first here. Paul started writing poetry following the death of his father and as a result much of it deals with death and grief.  Paul is not a poet in the fulltime sense of the word, he is an ordinary person with a job etc who also writes poetry. So your feedback would be very welcome.


Failing Courage

 by Paul Wooldridge


My father cries like me. With eyes closed, tears

slip gently down his cheeks. Or should it be,

because I’ve shed so few in thirty years

and now I witness them so frequently,

I fear I cry like him, not he like me?


They build behind his eyelids, thin and raw,

before descending, leaving gleaming trails

on ageing skin, more pallid than before.

I note the signs, those caused as bodies ail,

and with them his reserves of courage fail.


Both anchored in the living room, his hand

in mine, he sinks back propped with pillowed head.

As limbs begin to twitch beyond command,

I watch my future weeping on a bed.





The Soul
by John Whitworth

The soul is like a little mouse.
He hides inside the body’s house
With anxious eyes and twitchy nose
As in and out he comes and goes,
A friendly, inoffensive ghost
Who lives on tea and buttered toast.
He is so delicate and small
Perhaps he is not there at all;
Long-headed chaps who ought to know
Assure us it cannot be so.
But sometimes, as I lie in bed,
I think I hear inside my head
His soft ethereal song whose words
Are in some language of the birds,
An air-borne poetry and prose
Whose liquid grammar no one knows.
So we go on, my soul and I,
Until, the day I have to die,
He packs his bags, puts on his hat
And leaves for ever. Just like that.

Friday poem

Roadside Flowers 

by Paul Wooldridge

The trees along my route are wrapped
in flowers, quickly passed each day
but only noticed by a few.
Their colours burst then slip from view
as each is lost, submerged in grey,
their brightness all too quickly sapped.

Read More

Last poem

Japanese Maple

by Clive James (who is dying)

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable.

You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact.

When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colors will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

No Time

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Billy Collins


Mickey, Cormac and Cathal Mac Connell at the funeral of their brother, Seán Mac Connell

When my father died
The professionals cried,
The undertaker and doctor.
Little more need be said
Of a man with a heart of gold
Locked in a tabernacle of arthritic bones
who could melt stones… with his words.
Who loved children and dogs.
Deep lakes and cotton covered bogs.
Ballads dropped from his lips
And a mercury brain generated
Quips worthy of the best.
For that he was.
The best.

Written by the former Agricultural Correspondent of The Irish Times Seán Mac Connell and read at his funeral.