The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Funeral Poems, from Ancient Greece to the Modern World

Funeral Poems, from Ancient Greece to the Modern World

Funeral poems, also known as bereavement poems, offer speakers and writers the opportunity to reflect on those they have lost. Sometimes, in the event of tragedy and absolute despair, the words of poets offer a moment of respite and the comfort that we are not entirely alone. When our own words fail us, those of poets from yesteryear or today can provide a comforting embrace. Funeral poems are shared and spoken worldwide across geographical location, culture, religion, and space. While the words and languages themselves might differ, the language of poetry is universal, offering a channel through which to communicate even the rawest of feelings and emotions in even the most precarious of times.

In moments of despair and grief, many have turned to the elegy as a way to mourn those who have passed on. The elegy derives from the Ancient Greek world elegos, meaning to lament, and evokes a feeling of grief or sorrow. Traditionally, the Ancient Greeks wrote this metrical form in response to the death of a loved one or a group of loved ones, perhaps lost at battle while the nation was at war. Their original conception was usually written in three parts, with part one revealing the initial lament in which the speaker emphasised their sorrow.

In part two, they offered admiration and idealisation of the dead, and finally, in part three, a moment of consolation and acceptance was offered. This original structure of these funeral poems, in essence, seemed to reflect that of the grieving process itself, highlighting the ebbs and flows as we try to navigate life without the ones that we loved.

The elegy eventually reached the English-speaking world by the 16th century and was initially performed as a lamentation song. However, with time these structures began to ease and soon, by 1600, the elegy was also read in poetry form much like it is today. Elegies offer the opportunity to reflect on the life of the person who is gone.

Famed English poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge – who wrote the famous, dream-like poem Kubla Khan – viewed the elegy as a “serious meditative poem” that offered an opportunity to reflect. This reflection and serious tone are still pertinent to many funeral poems today. The elegy, however, is not to be mistaken with the eulogy. While both written forms pay tribute to the dead, the eulogy is often more celebratory and usually given in speech form. Both, however, add significant value to funerals and memorials and choosing the medium through which you honour those you have lost is a profoundly personal decision.

Explore the World of Funeral Poems

If you have been wondering about the vast and multifaceted world of funeral poems, it is certainly a genre worth exploring. While the literary greats have much to offer, there is much poetic talent on our own shores, too, and this can be explored in our poem library. Interestingly, the category of poems about death is our most extensive genre yet, with poems in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages.

Perhaps this highlights how the theme of loss is so universal. No matter who we are or where we come from, it is an inevitable part of life that connects us all. Funeral poems offer us a moment to navigate our inner struggles while connecting with the outside world. In instances of deeply individualised grief, we can tap into moments of collective mourning and hopefully find greater comfort than we envisioned by sharing the impact of such loss.

Here at The AVBOB Poetry Project, we strive to make poetry accessible to all, offering poems that offer diversity of subject, language, structure, and style. Each of us has a story within us, and the world of poetry can help us to process and articulate even the most profound losses. If you have considered writing a funeral poem, it is certainly worth tapping into the insights and reflections of other poets who also had to navigate such a loss. Nevertheless, while engaging with different writers and poets is paramount to enhancing poetic knowledge and style, each writer has a unique voice and a story to tell the world. Keep an eye out for our next poetry contest.