Poems about the death of a loved one are known as elegies. The word ‘elegy’ originates from the the Greek word ‘elegos,’ meaning a poem or song of a lament. Elegies or poems about the death of a loved one are poems written to grieve one’s loss after the death of a loved one. The elegies are very similar to the eulogy. Eulogies are written to honor one’s life. They are published in newspapers and often spoken at the person’s funeral or memorial service.
Elegy is different in the sense that it is poetry written in verse. The poet reflects on and laments the death of a loved one in these short poems about the death of a loved one. Sometimes, the poems are different in describing separation and rejection from a loved one.
Writing words often prove therapeutic. Sometimes, the emotions expressed are so raw that they are easily conveyed, irrespective of language. For example, there are beautifully haunting poems about the death of a loved one in other languages.
Catullus wrote ‘Carmen 101’ for his brother, who died. It is an emotional ten-line poem where Catullus addresses his brother’s silent ashes.
Most Important Poems About Death of A Loved One
1. Nothing Gold Can Stay
The American poet Robert Frost’s 1923 ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ is a poem that allegorically alludes to the transience of life. Robert Frost Nature’s first green is gold, which is the poem’s opening line, highlighting the metaphor of nature.
“Her early leaf’s a flower, But only an hour.”
The phrase “only so an hour” emphasizes that time is passing, and no phase of nature stays long. The early leaf’s a flower only for a period of time. He explores the idea that life is not permanent through the vivid description of nature’s changing seasons. Read Robert Frost’s text here.
2. Time Does Not Bring Relief; You All Have Lied
One of the poems about the death of a loved one is “Time does not bring relief, you all have lied” by Edna St. Vincent Mallay. It is basically in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet of fourteen lines. The speaker sounds frustrated at the people who have consoled her after her separation from an ex-lover. They have said that time would bring her relief. She is heartbroken that her “last year’s bitter loving must remain.”
The ‘last year’s bitter loving’ remains the source of trauma to the poet. Initially, the poet was set in her view that her ex-lover’s memory haunted the world. However, the final sestet is characterized by a volta or a change in tone, where she realizes that his memory and not the world haunted her. Read the poem here.
3. Funeral Blues
“Funeral Blues” or “Stop all the clocks” is a 1938 poem by W.H Auden that appears in the 1936 play The Ascent of F6. The poem ‘Stop all the clocks is an elegy for a deceased loved one. The poet describes how grief can isolate people. Everyone around one moves on as if nothing’s changed, while the person feels isolated. The poet, therefore, wants the world to mourn with him.
The speaker asks to ‘Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,/Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves’ to announce the death of their loved ones. The poet here metaphorically alludes to the world to grieve through the crepe bows round the necks of doves and the black cotton gloves.
The poet then goes on to express the importance of the loved ones in their life. The speaker says the beloved was “my working week and my Sunday’s rest.” The opposing terms working week and Sunday rest signify that the beloved was the poet’s everything. Sunday rest here means that the person was the peace to the chaos for the speaker.
It is a realistic portrayal of the suffering after the death of a loved one. Read the poem here.
One of the poems about the death of a loved one, ‘Cold’ by Carol Ann Duffy specifical addresses losing one’s mother. However, the coldness we feel after losing a loved one is a universal emotion. The emotion is rightly captured in the poem. The vivid description of the mother’s voice calling her children from outside livens her memory. Mother’s voice calling is a thing of the past with the mother’s passing away.
The coldness of the winter season is surpassed by the coldness in the speaker’s heart when she opens the chapel of rest where her mother lies on a particular February night. Debating on what to do while her mother lay there, she gives a kiss on her brow. The kiss, however, defines the meaning of the cold.
5. On the Death of the Beloved
On the Death of the Beloved’ by Irish poet John O’Donohue is a poem that celebrates the life of the loved one in addition to grieving the loss. In this poem, the poet celebrates all the memories filled with love with the deceased person.
Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of color.”
The speaker of the funeral poem says that the memories of their loved ones would not suffice and satisfy their absence. The poet then requests the loved one to be beside them when ‘kindness glows’ and ‘music echoes eternal tones.’ A hopeful tone is introduced in the end when the speaker asks for the deceased to let dark grief flower into hope.
You can read the funeral poems by John O’Donohue here.
6. Epitaph on My Own Friend
William Muir in Tarbolton was a family friend to the poet Robert Burns. When he died, Robert Burns wrote “Epitaph On My Own Friend” in honor of his friend. William Muir took in Jean Armour at a difficult point when she got to know Robert impregnated her for a second time.
The poet has celebrated all the virtues of the honest man, William Muir. His virtues, aside from him being an honest man, are numerous. His friend is one out of the rarity of few heads with vast knowledge and only a few hearts full of virtues. Robert Burns believes that if an afterlife exists, he will live in bliss. He also adds that even if there’s no afterlife, his friend made the best out of his life. Read the poem here.
7. Turn Again to Life
‘Turn again to life’ is another great short poem out of the poems about the death of a loved one and is written by Mary Lee Hall. It is distinguished from other poems about the death of a loved one in the fact that it is a beautiful poem that talks of embracing the memories of the loved ones and living a beautiful life in their memory rather than grieving them. She asks the poem’s readers to celebrate her life and continue it by completing her dear unfinished tasks. You can read the short and beautiful poem here.
8. There Is No Light without A Dawning
Another funeral poem that brings peace and comfort to those who read it is ‘There is No Light Without A Dawning’ by Helen Steiner Rice. This poem is all about hope in the face of mourning. She assures us that we will be reunited with the departed beyond the ‘dark horizon.’ The poet assures us that the loved ones who leave us have only gone ‘into a brighter day’ out of a ‘restless, care worn world. Helen Steiner Rice has written several faith poems like this and has tried to encourage us through grieving times. She has written other faith-filled poems about embracing death as a natural process. Check out her other works by clicking here.
8. Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ is another 1932 poem about welcoming death. The poet Mary Elizabeth Frye is speaking from beyond her grave. She commands the people not to stand at her grave and weep, assuring them that she is not lying there. She softens her tone and speaks of being with her loved ones in the form of ‘ a thousand winds that blow.
She is the ‘gentle autumn rain’ present in nature and the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flights. She is present in the form of all-natural elements. The poet’s identity of the poem was debated for a long time, as the American poet Mary Elizabeth Frye never copyrighted the poem. Read the poem.
In other poems, the poets talk of their realistic fear of death. Such poems where the poets have dramatized the concept of death are poems by Emily Dickinson. Her attitude towards death was that death was an inevitable end. She was always conscious of the inevitable phenomenon of death. Dickinson’s most famous poem about death is ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death.’ The American poetess Dickinson’s texts can be read here.
9. God’s Garden
There are other beautiful poems about the death of a loved one. Rather, it has a religious take on death where the beloved people go to heaven, which should be celebrated. The poem is ‘God’s Garden.’ The poet speaks of how God chooses the best people who are worn down. God calls them to his garden and assures them peace in his garden. It is a poem that offers comfort and solace to loved ones. The identity of the poet of this poem is often disputed. Read the poem here.
Another funeral poem, ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, starts on a somber note where the poet asks the readers to dig his grave and let him lie under the wide and starry sky rather than mourning him when death comes. He assures others that he has lived a full life and welcomes death on his own accord. The poem is supposed to bring comfort and peace to the near and dear ones of the departed soul. These kinds of poems are read at a funeral or memorial service.
11. The Broken Chain Poem
Another poem that breaks one’s heart out of all the funeral poems is ‘The Broken Chain Poem’ by Ron Tranmer. The poem simply expresses the turmoils and emotions caused by familial loss. The tone of the poem is both mournful and hopeful. Having suffered the loss of one family member, all the family members are grieving their losses. However, they are hopeful that the family will be reunited once again. The broken family chain will be once again completed. Read the poem here.
12. Warm Summer Sun
Mark Twain’s poem ‘Warm Summer Sun’ is different than all the other poems about the death of a loved one. The poem vividly describes all the processes leading up to the death of a person. The season of summer here signifies the stage of youthful age. Twain asks for the warm southern wind to blow upon him. In the lines “Green sod above,/Lie light, lie light,” the poet refers to him being buried underground. A person’s life cycle until their death is described in the poem “Warm Summer Sun.” Click here to read this funeral poem.
13. When Great Trees Fall
A funeral poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’ was tributed to Mary Oliver by the American poet Maya Angelou. Mary Oliver, the poetess, passed away in January 2019. Her poems celebrate life, death, and everything in between. Oliver talks of the peace she gets among the trees in her poem ‘When I Am Among The Trees.’ Maya Angelou picks up her oneness with nature in the tribute. The anguish and the pain one suffers after having lost someone close to them are described in the poem.
Firstly, the animal’s pain and then hunkering down to ‘slumber after safety’ is described. Then she describes how the loss of great things is felt by both the small and the big beings. She then speaks about how human beings are affected by the death of a great being amidst them. The poet is full of hope and can acknowledge and appreciate the existence and the full lives of loved ones.
14. Life Goes On
Another beautifully haunting poem out of all the poems about the death of a loved one is ‘Life Goes On by Joyce Grenfell. She starts the poem by discussing how she wants her beloved people to react if she should go before the rest of them. She asks not to inscribe a grave in her name or speak in a Sunday voice. The purpose of her poem is to make people understand that the whole purpose of their life should not revolve around grieving a loved one. They should always remember to ‘sing as well.
15. She Is Gone
Another poem about the death of a loved one is the English poet and painter David Harkins’ ‘She is Gone.’ In this funeral poem, out of all the poems about the death of a loved one, the poet describes the conflicting emotions one is faced with after losing a loved one. The poet says one can shed tears in grief or smile because of their full life. There are two options in the case of remembrance as well. Either we get stuck in the past or cherish memories and move on.
The final lines of the poem summarize all the poems about the death of a loved one perfectly,
“You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love, and go on.”
While we have the right to grieve properly and shed tears, being stuck with the loved one’s memories can haunt one. One needs to move on. No matter what relationship one holds with the departed soul, this poem, when read, offers comfort to grieving people.
In all these poems about the death of a loved one, there are some poems death of loved ones similar in the undercurrent themes. So, there is a group of poems about the death of a loved one that embraces the overpowering grief. Examples of such poems are Cold and Funeral Blues.
However, there are other poems about the death of a loved one that celebrates the life of the departed loved ones. These poems offer solace and peace to the near and dear ones of the deceased. One such poem is Life Goes On.
There are also certain poems about the death of a loved one where the poet does not talk of a death that has occurred. Instead, they welcome and embrace their own nearing death. For example, Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep is one of those poems.
All the poems about the death of a loved one are usually written in a simplistic language and are meant to be read at a memorial service. The length of the poems is invariably short. In this article, we have looked at the most impactful poems about the death of a loved one.