Non-religious funeral readings
April 26, 2021 12:52 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend, who is having to sadly plan a relative's funeral. She's after some nice poems or readings to choose from, that befit someone who didn't practise a religion. They may be especially fitting if there's some reference to travel, which was one of the relative's main interests. Thanks for any suggestions!
posted by FifteenShocks to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Something from Ferlinghetti's Little Boy might be of interest. I think the specific selection will be very personal. But, it's all joyfully contrarian and crosses at least one ocean.
posted by eotvos at 1:14 PM on April 26

I find Why You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral to be a meaningful blend of poignant and non-theist.

Many non-religious readings use nature images and metaphors, such as in this poem, or this one.

Here is one that uses the metaphor of a journey, which might tie into a travel theme.

My condolences to your friend.
posted by Otis the Lion at 1:19 PM on April 26 [1 favorite]

When I was in high school, we had to memorize the last stanza of William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis. I still find it a great comfort, all these mumblemumble years later. I think it falls into both the “nature” and “journey” categories.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:36 PM on April 26 [1 favorite]

"Has it then all been for nothing that you have had such a friend? During so many years, amid such close associations, after such intimate communion of personal interests, has nothing been accomplished? Do you bury friendship along with a friend? And why lament having lost him, if it be of no avail to have possessed him? Believe me, a great part of those we have loved, though chance has removed their persons, still abides with us. The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been.” --- Attributed to Seneca
posted by forthright at 2:30 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

Black Maps, Mark Strand
Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,
nor the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.
Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you've never been.
You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?
The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,
in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness
the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath.
And if they are studied at all
it is only to find,
too late, what you thought
were concerns of yours do not exist.
Your house is not marked
on any of them,
nor are your friends,
waiting for you to appear,
nor are your enemies,
listing your faults.
Only you are there,
saying hello
to what you will be,
and the black grass
is holding up the black stars.

Initiation Song from the Finder's Lodge, Ursula LeGuin
Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
And the ways you go be the lines of your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
And your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well-loved one,
Walk mindfully, well-loved one,
Walk fearlessly, well-loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
Be always coming home.

Darest Thou Now O Soul, Walt Whitman
Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undream'd of in that region, that inaccessible land.
Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.
Then we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O soul.

Song of Myself, 46, Walt Whitman
Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:22 PM on April 26 [3 favorites]

It's very short which may not be what your friend wants, but for my grandfather's funeral I chose "Late Fragment" by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
posted by babelfish at 3:35 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

Condolences to your friend and their family.

When Death Comes: An Oncology Nurse Finds Solace in Mary Oliver (Mary Oliver's poem When Death Comes; other Oliver poems are excerpted in the essay.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:49 PM on April 26 [1 favorite]

Each of you relate an incident that you best remember the deceased by... that nobody else knew?
posted by kschang at 5:27 PM on April 26

You can’t go far wrong with Whitman.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:50 PM on April 26

The one reading that gives me solace in times of mourning is Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland. Although Scott-Holland wrote it as a (Protestant) sermon, I'm an agnostic Jew, and I've shared it with people of various faith and non-faith traditions, and I think it's a comfort for people who believe something or nothing, whether strongly or otherwise.

Given the concept of travel, if, instead of comfort, you want something that will make for beautiful tears, I always remember the poem Maria Shriver read at Tim Russert's funeral. It's called The Little Ship. It's more of a metaphorical travel, but it's short and lovely, and I've heard it read with "she" as often as "he."
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:17 PM on April 26

When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.
I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind.
You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

Epitaph by Merrit Malloy
posted by anadem at 11:50 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]

There is this exchange from Lord Of The Rings; I can only find it in "script" format as it was depicted in the films.
PIPPIN: I didn't think it would end this way.

GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?

GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

PIPPIN: Well, that isn't so bad.

GANDALF: No. No, it isn't.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:17 PM on April 27

At my circumnavigating naval father's funeral, my brother read the last section of Ulysses by Tennyson. Still gives me a bit of a frisson 20 years on:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die . . .
. . .To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:41 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]

IF Tennyson too long, mentions Gods THEN Caminante, no hay camino by Antonio Mahado:
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:51 PM on April 27

Response by poster: Thank you for these wonderful suggestions, which I've now passed on to my friend. Thanks especially to those of you who shared something that holds personal meaning.

Some of them have made me quite teary!
posted by FifteenShocks at 1:35 AM on April 28

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