A chat about poetry inspired Funeral Support Assistant, Jen, to offer some tips for how to incorporate it into funeral services…
Unlike a wedding ceremony, which typically reflects and celebrates one single relationship, a funeral is an opportunity for family and friends to come together in celebration of a mutual loved one. With so many nuanced relationships to honour, each with their own memories to cherish, it is vital that the service has broad appeal, yet isn’t so general as to lack personality.
This particular set of circumstances can mean that picking an appropriate poem for a funeral can become a veritable minefield as, aside from practicalities like length and language, interpretation must be considered so everyone can find comfort in the chosen text. Having a wide selection to choose from can also be overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with poetry, leaving families picking at random or else leaving the choice up to the officiant.
With all these challenges in mind, we at Freeman Brothers have put together some thoughts and ideas, in response to some common questions, to help you make the best choice for your funeral service.
Let’s start with a question you need to be asking yourself straightaway…
Why do I want to include a poem?
As with any aspect funeral planning, think carefully about your intention – what effect do you want the poem to have during the service? Is it honouring the person who has died, or bringing peace to the mourners? Do you wish to address your loved one specifically, or be open and reflective? Perhaps you want to offer a hopeful message for the future? Whatever your preference, making this decision first will inform your choice and help you to identify the most appropriate style of poem, ensuring that the end result feels right.
On the other hand, if your inner voice isn’t able to answer this question, or you find you’re choosing a poem simply because you feel you ought to, you might like to forget poetry altogether and consider some alternatives like music, a visual tribute or a spoken letter.
I want to include a poem, but what type of poem should I choose?
Traditionally, odes (that speak directly to the person being honoured) and elegies are popular poetic forms for a funeral service as they are lyrical in style and often focus on the subject of loss. They are generally quite long however, sometimes employing archaic language and structural devices, making them a challenge to read and perhaps better suited to a church service or other religious setting.
If your service is taking place in a crematorium – where time is limited and the structure of the ceremony may be more contemporary – a lighter style, such as a sonnet, may be a better choice. Typically shorter, sonnets have a regular natural rhythm, which can be pleasant on the ear and easier to read for those unused to public speaking.
We have a favourite poem, but I’m not sure everyone will understand its significance. How can I make it meaningful to others?
Favourite poems and readings can come to us at any stage in our lives – happy or sad, celebratory or not – so, depending on the circumstances, it may not always feel appropriate to include them in the funeral service, particularly if they are especially comical or romantic; you may not want to run the risk of offending others who are unaware of a deeper meaning. Though we’re inclined to tell you not to worry – to pick the poem you want because it’s meaningful to you – we are all aware how hurtful and excluding it can feel not to be ‘in on the joke’.
To avoid additional upset on an already-difficult day, a simple solution is to print a brief introduction to the poem in the order of service, explaining how and why it came to be chosen. A few simple words, such as ‘Martin chose this poem for our wedding ceremony so it brings back happy memories of our time together’ or ‘This poem features in Linda’s favourite film, reminding us of her wicked sense of humour’ can subtly include others in a memory without compromising on your choice.
How can I make sure everyone finds comfort in the poem I’ve chosen?
Religious overtones in poetry, and other specific references, can sometimes be problematic if mourners from a variety of cultural backgrounds are anticipated. If this is likely to be the case, consider choosing a poem that focuses on general spirituality, broad emotion or non-divisive topics, leaving members of the congregation to interpret the words in their own way.
Look to poems from the Romantic era for some good options – Keats, Tennyson and Dickinson are often popular choices – as they tend to focus more on the comfort and inspiration that can be found in nature, making them more generally accessible.
Who should I ask to read a poem?
Even the most stoic and confident of readers can find the experience of reading aloud at a funeral intimidating: the best-prepared presenter can be unexpectedly overwhelmed on the day. Happily, there are a few adjustments you can make to help minimise nerves and anxiety:
- Consider choosing a pair of readers, who can divide the lines between them, so there is always a supportive hand to hold or a voice to take over if the occasion gets too much.
- Prepare a visual tribute of images to display on a screen while the poem is read so the reader doesn’t feel they are being watched.
- Ask the reader to audio-record themselves at home and simply play the recording during the service. Knowing, on the day, that their contribution is ‘in the can’ will eliminate anticipation and help your reader to focus on the ceremony itself.
Children, in particular, can feel very tense about reading aloud in an unfamiliar room full of strangers so allow them to remain in their seat, if it helps to ease the pressure. If you’re worried about others having difficulty hearing, pre-record the poem or print the words in order of service. Offer them something to hold while reading: a flower, teddy, beaded bracelet or handkerchief infused with the soothing scent of lavender can ease tension without becoming a distraction. Above all, have a back-up reader ready to step in so they have the option to change their mind if necessary.
My family aren’t really into poetry, but I feel like it would be appropriate. How can I include some words of comfort that everyone will enjoy without it feeling ‘heavy’?
Poems set to music can be a subtle, accessible way to introduce poetry to a funeral service.
Howard Goodall, for example – famous for composing the theme tunes to many beloved TV series such as The Vicar of Dibley, Red Dwarf and Blackadder – has set the words of popular poem ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep’ (Frye, 1932) to a contemporary tune that is sombre yet soothing.
Everyone has a different idea about what words we should include. How can I keep everyone happy?
Often the most challenging aspect of funeral arranging is ensuring that everyone’s wishes are heard: grief and tension can make otherwise-trivial decisions suddenly seem really significant, leaving emotions raw and tempers frayed. Though it may be tempting to pull rank, make an executive decision and hope for the best, you may suffer the fallout further down the line.
Often, family members and friends who have seemingly definite opinions about aspects of the service are really just anxious not to be left out: simply knowing they have a role may really be what’s important. To ensure everyone feels heard, dividing up the responsibilities and being upfront about it may help to mitigate this common problem right away, e.g. if two people want to choose the poem, perhaps you can ask one to pick the text and the other to read it at the ceremony.
Lots of poems to choose from? Consider creating an Anthology (booklet of poems) instead of a traditional order of service. Ask each family member to supply the text to their chosen poem, along with a brief introduction to explain what the poem means to them and why they chose it. Hand out the booklet for mourners to read by themselves during the service or while waiting for it to begin. This doubles as a lovely keepsake and may be a good option for non-officiated funerals as it offers mourners a focus for reflection.
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