Reading poems at a funeral can provide comfort to those who are suffering from the the loss of a loved one. Poets have the gift of being able to use words to give expression to the most sublime sentiments of the heart, and many of the most famous poets in history have used their talents to write about death and dying. Some poems about death can be dark, with emphasis on the misery of the dying and the grief of mourners. Others, however, express empathy for those who suffer while offering the comfort and inspiration that flows from the hope of a life after death.
There is certainly an element of subjectivity when evaluating poetry, and the effects of poems can vary significantly depending on the individuals who read or hear them. There are, however, some famous poems that seem particularly suitable for reading at funerals and for any stage of grief after the loss of a loved one.
One of the poems that I happily recommend is “The Dying Christian To His Soul” by Alexander Pope. This poem approaches death from the perspective of the dying person, and is short enough to be comfortably read within a funeral service. It begins with the description of a conflict that exists within the dying person. The physical body is collapsing while the immortal soul within is seeking to continue expressing life. The dying person suffers uncertainty about what is happening in this new experience. As the senses of sight and hearing ebb away, the portal to heaven opens and a new version of life is discovered. The poem concludes with the immortal soul of the deceased making a triumphant, almost mocking proclamation of victory over death.
Another poem that can offer comfort to those who have lost a loved one is “The Reaper And The Flowers” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Death is described as a Reaper who gathers flowers from the earth. The Reaper is not vengeful or vindictive, and does not come for destruction. Rather, he is an angel who is commissioned to gather tokens from the earth where the Lord of Paradise was once a child. The work of the Reaper is gentle, and he stoops and kisses the leaves of the flowers before tenderly gathering them, not for disposal, but to be transplanted in a heavenly field. This poem offers the beautiful message that there is meaning, value, and purpose in our deaths.
Although the poems previously mentioned are my personal favorites for times of mourning, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” by Emily Bronte deserves honorable mention for bringing our attention to immortality. It is a poem that offers comfort by its emphasis on eternal life.
If misery does love company, sometimes people who are deeply grieving may find comfort in poetry that focuses entirely on the pain of confronting death. “O Death, Rock Me Asleep” by Anne Boleyn describes the despair and anxiety of a prisoner awaiting execution. In “Bereavement” Percy Bysshe Shelly offers empathy with those who mourn while trusting in the eventual happiness of the afterlife.