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Presenting an Elegy

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Presenting an Elegy: Preparing an Obituary Poem for Memorial Service

Across cultures, art has been used to mourn, celebrate, and commemorate our loved ones at their passing. Whether an elegy or a funeral march, it’s important to explore how the spoken word can be used to celebrate your loved one’s life, as well as how you can go about writing an elegy yourself.

What is an Elegy?

An elegy is a poem in remembrance and commemoration of someone who has passed, also known as ‘obituary poetry’. In the past, elegies were not restricted by subject, but in modern Western usage, elegies have come to focus on lamentation. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, an elegy is a “meditative lyric poem lamenting the death of a public personage or of a friend or loved one; by extension, any reflective lyric on the broader theme of human mortality”.

‘Elegy’ is Greek for ‘lament’ ─ a passionate expression of grief of sorrow. While elegies are mostly in reference to a piece of poetry, it can also be used to describe a piece of music or a song that expresses sorrow or lamentation for a lost loved one.

Historical and Cultural Importance of Elegies

People have used poetry and music to express grief across cultures and time. In East Asia, death poems, or ‘jisei’ (in Japanese), are produced at the time of an individual’s death. These poems typically reflect on the individual’s life, claiming death as impermanent and a transitory period. This tradition arose from Buddhist teachings. While sorrowful and reflective in nature, death poems differ from the traditional elegy in that they are performed right before the person’s death, rather than after their passing.

Another tradition using poetry and song as a way to commemorate a person’s death is through the performance of mourning songs. A funeral march is one musical genre that is typically played during a funeral or memorial. These marches are typically played in a minor key and slow in tempo ─ resembling the careful march during a funeral procession. While there have been many funeral marches written and performed throughout history, one of the most iconic is Chopin’s Funeral March, the third movement in his Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor. In addition to being recognizable throughout film and pop culture, the piece was performed in Chopin’s own funeral. Another type of mourning song is a dirge. Dirges are traditional songs of mourning, working similarly to a funeral march. Amongst such songs, one of the most well-known is the Lyke Wake Dirge, a traditional English folk song.

Somber songs are traditionally heard at funeral services, but more and more often, people are celebrating their loved ones with songs that might not be considered typical funeral pieces. When choosing how to best celebrate and remember your loved one, one option is to pick music and poetry that they loved in their life, or songs that had particular meaning to them. Remember to still think of your audience and to remain sensitive to the occasion, but playing a dreary funeral march is not necessarily the best or only way to memorialize your loved one. And to note, aside from these few examples, there are still many different cultural and traditional forms of music and poetry used to mourn the death of a loved one.

Do You Want an Elegy for Your Loved One’s Passing?

Amongst the multitude of things that will be swirling through your mind as you prepare for a loved one’s funeral or as you make arrangements for yourself, planning to perform an elegy is most likely not going to be one of your top priorities. However, if you do want to perform an elegy, or any other type of obituary poetry or song, be assured you have a number of options.

How to Write an Elegy

The first option is to perform a poem or song that has already been written. There are resources to find a poem you feel matches the emotions you wish to convey. Similarly, you can find songs to perform or play through speakers. 

Another option is to write something yourself. It can be creatively and emotionally fulfilling to write something for your loved one in their memory.

  1. First, think about what you want to focus on: an emotion you felt, a story of the person, or a particular image.
  2. Once you’ve thought about what you want to talk about, figure out the form of the piece ─  there are many, many options for how you could tackle this project. Writing poetry is a different experience for everyone; You might want to use a more traditional form or meter for your poetry, or throw out form all together. Here’s a resource for navigating the number of possible forms you could write your elegy in. Elegies are traditionally written using elegiac couplets, where each couplet uses a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. However, feel free to stray away from the traditional form if you want to try something else ─ what’s important in the situation is celebrating your loved one, not the technicality of the piece. A free verse could be a good option for you if you don’t have as much technical experience drafting poetry, as the form doesn’t follow any particular meter or rhyming scheme.
  3. Then, write and draft as needed. You might not reach your perfect poem immediately,  but don’t be afraid to edit and tweak it until you land on something that you feel best conveys the memory of your loved one. 
  4. Throughout this process, you might find it helpful to practice the draft with another person, preferably someone who also knew your loved one. This could be useful for getting a second opinion, catching unintentional errors, and becoming more comfortable with the material. 
  5. After you feel like you have completed writing, think about how you want to perform the piece. You could be more reserved, giving a traditional, solemn performance. Or, you could try something a bit different. If you have experience, you could put music over the poetry. Once again, it’s advised that you get a second opinion, as well as practice before the day of the occasion. It is also a good idea to have express permission from both the family of your loved one and the funeral home before making your performance.

Other Options for Memorial Speeches

However, if you find that throughout your experience preparing an elegy that poetry or song might not be your thing, there are still other options for memorializing your loved one. For example, presenting a eulogy, or ceremonial speech, may be more appropriate if you want to write something in memory of your loved one, but not as familiar with the ins and outs of poetry construction. Whichever method you choose, there are a few pieces of advice to remember as you prepare your piece:

  1. Think about your audience. Funerals are a difficult time for all of us. While there are a number of things that you might feel capture your loved one’s personality and interests, the memorial should serve as a safe place for everyone to mourn and remember them. Think about the other living guests as well.
  2. Don’t make it about yourself. In a funeral service, memorial, celebration of life, and so forth, the focus of the event should be on your loved one, not you. In that spirit, make sure the content doesn’t linger too long on you. Keep the material short and sweet.

Whether you are making preparations for your loved one or yourself, or you need immediate service, Tulip Cremation offers high-quality direct cremations at a low-price. It isn’t easy losing a loved one, and there are many things to concern yourself with following their passing. We want to make your experience as easy and simple as possible. Our Family Care Team is available 24/7 at (844) 942-4909. Or, if you prefer, you can arrange online at anytime.

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