Because so much in our cultural ceremonies is geared toward a religious perspective on life and death, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the funeral planning process when a person without faith ties passes. For the secular crowd, then, collecting non-religious funeral readings, songs, and ceremony information before their final days is essential.
This kind of funeral preparation is of particular importance if you come from a religious family, or are in an interfaith relationship. Folks raised in religious homes often have trouble separating their beliefs from those of the general populace, and that can make it even more difficult for them to begin planning a non-religious funeral. Try searching for "atheist funeral," and you'll see what I mean. So many people have no idea what happens at a funeral that doesn't involve a faith leader, prayer, and the promise of some form of life after death.
If you're a religious person who has found this article because you need secular funeral readings for someone else's ceremony, thank you for taking the time to plan a service that respectfully honors your loved one's memory. I know that this is a difficult period in your life, but you're doing great.
Here are 16 non-religious funeral readings from poems, submitted for your approval.
1. "When I am dead my dearest" by Christina Rossetti
When I am dead, my dearest,Sing no sad songs for me;Plant thou no roses at my head,Nor shady cypress tree:With showers and dewdrops wet;And if thou wilt, remember,And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,I shall not feel the rain;I shall not hear the nightingaleSing on, as if in pain;And dreaming through the twilightThat doth not rise nor set,Haply I may rememberAnd haply may forget.
2. "Our revels are now ended" from The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,As I foretold you, were all spirits andAre melted into air, into thin air:And like the baseless fabric of this vision,The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,The solemn temples, the great globe itself,Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolveAnd, like this insubstantial pageant faded,Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuffAs dreams are made on, and our little lifeIs rounded in a sleep.
3. "The Choir Invisible" by George Eliot
O may I join the choir invisibleOf those immortal dead who live againIn minds made better by their presence; liveIn pulses stirred to generosity,In deeds of daring rectitude, in scornOf miserable aims that end with self,In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,And with their mild persistence urge men's mindsTo vaster issues.
So to live is heaven:To make undying music in the world,Breathing a beauteous order that controlsWith growing sway the growing life of man.So we inherit that sweet purityFor which we struggled, failed and agonizedWith widening retrospect that bred despair.Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,A vicious parent shaming still its child,Poor, anxious penitence is quick dissolved;Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,Die in the large and charitable air;And all our rarer, better, truer self,That sobbed religiously in yearning song,That watched to ease the burden of the world,Laboriously tracing what must be,And what may yet be better — saw ratherA worthier image for the sanctuaryAnd shaped it forth before the multitude,Divinely human, raising worship soTo higher reverence more mixed with love —That better self shall live till human TimeShall fold its eyelids, and the human skyBe gathered like a scroll within the tombUnread for ever.
This is life to come,Which martyred men have made more gloriousFor us who strive to follow.May I reachThat purest heaven — be to other soulsThe cup of strength in some great agony,Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,And in diffusion ever more intense!So shall I join the choir invisibleWhose music is the gladness of the world.
4. "But Not Forgotten" by Dorothy Parker
I think, no matter where you stray,That I shall go with you a way.Though you may wander sweeter lands,You will not soon forget my hands,Nor yet the way I held my head,Nor all the tremulous things I said.You still will see me, small and whiteAnd smiling, in the secret night,And feel my arms about you whenThe day comes fluttering back again.I think, no matter where you be,You'll hold me in your memoryAnd keep my image, there without me,By telling later loves about me.
5. "Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,Silence the pianos and with muffled drumBring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let airplanes circle moaning overheadScribbling on the sky the message "He is Dead",Put Crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,My working week and my Sunday-rest,My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood,For nothing now can ever come to any good.
6. "Dear Lovely Death" by Langston Hughes
Dear lovely DeathThat taketh all things under wingNever to killOnly to changeInto some other thingThis suffering flesh,To make it either more or less,But not again the sameDear lovely Death,Change is thy other name.
7. "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep;I am not there. I do not sleep.I am a thousand winds that blow.I am the diamond glints on snow.I am the sunlight on ripened grain,I am the gentle autumn rain.When you awaken in the morning’s hush,I am the swift uplifting rushOf quiet birds in circled flight.I am the soft stars that shine at night.Do not stand at my grave and cry;I am not there. I did not die.
8. From "Adonais" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
He has outsoar'd the shadow of our night;Envy and calumny and hate and pain, And that unrest which men miscall delight, Can touch him not and torture not again; From the contagion of the world's slow stain He is secure, and now can never mourn A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain; Nor, when the spirit's self has ceas'd to burn,With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
9. "Remember Me" by Margaret Mead
Remember Me:To the living, I am gone.To the sorrowful, I will never return.To the angry, I was cheated,But to the happy, I am at peace,And to the faithful, I have never left.I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea — remember me.As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty — remember me.As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity — remember me.Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.
10. "Dirge without Music" by Enda St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. CrownedWith lilies and with laurel they go but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,A formula, a phrase remains, but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curledIs the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the graveGently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
11. "Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,Old age should burn and rave at close of day;Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,Because their words had forked no lightning theyDo not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how brightTheir frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sightBlind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.Do not go gentle into that good night.Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
12. "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens
Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. Let the wenches dawdle in such dress As they are used to wear, and let the boys Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers. Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal, Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet On which she embroidered fantails once, And spread it so as to cover her face. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
13. "Turn Again to Life" by Mary Lee Hall
If I should die and leave you here a while, be not like others sore undone,who keep long vigil by the silent dust.For my sake turn again to life and smile,nerving thy heart and trembling hand to dosomething to comfort other hearts than thine.Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mineand I perchance may therein comfort you.
14. "Remember" by Christina Rosetti
Remember me when I am gone away,Gone far away into the silent land;When you can no more hold me by the hand,Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.Remember me when no more day by dayYou tell me of our future that you planned:Only remember me; you understandIt will be late to counsel then or pray.Yet if you should forget me for a whileAnd afterwards remember, do not grieve:For if the darkness and corruption leaveA vestige of the thoughts that once I had,Better by far you should forget and smileThan that you should remember and be sad.
15. "Epitaph on a Friend" by Robert Burns
An honest man here lies at rest,The friend of man, the friend of truth,The friend of age, and guide of youth:Few hearts like his, with virtue warm'd,Few heads with knowledge so inform'd;If there's another world, he lives in bliss;If there is none, he made the best of this.
16. "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.You do not have to walk on your kneesFor a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.You only have to let the soft animal of your bodylove what it loves.Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.Meanwhile the world goes on.Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rainare moving across the landscapes,over the prairies and the deep trees,the mountains and the rivers.Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,are heading home again.Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,the world offers itself to your imagination,calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —over and over announcing your placein the family of things.
Images: ALAN SHAPIRO/Stocksy; Giphy (8)