How do you choose the right words to read at the funeral of your loved one? How do you put into words all that the deceased meant to you?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Grandparents
- Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Parents
- Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Another Family Member
- Non-Religious Funeral Readings for a Friend
- Non-Religious Funeral Readings About Nature or Science
Some turn to the words of scripture to look for inspiration. There, they find words of wisdom about life and the afterlife. But what about people who do not espouse any specific religious beliefs? What funeral readings do you choose for a non-religious funeral?
Here are some ideas. We’ve scoured the works of some of the most famous authors. We’ve also looked for inspiration from famous poets and even scientists. Here are some non-religious funeral readings for your pre-planned funeral or the services of one you loved.
COVID-19 tip: If you're hosting a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs, make sure to test your microphones and speakers before the service, so you can prepare for any audio issues. And, remember to send your virtual guests full copies of the readings so they can easily follow along if any audio issues arise.
Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Grandparents
Was your grandparent not a religious person? If so, you may be looking for non-religious funeral songs in addition to non-religious readings.
1. “Farewell, Sweet Dust” by Elinor Wylie
This incredibly touching poem is appropriate to read at the funeral of one who was cremated.
In it, the speaker says that scattering the remains of her loved one is the kind thing to do to others on earth as the ashes will cause snowflakes to be “softer feathered” and the clouds to be “whiter plumed.”
2. “Like the waves made toward the pebbled shore” by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare did not title his sonnets, so they are usually referred to by number or by the first line. In “like the waves,” Shakespeare talks about the inevitably of death and the hope that he will be remembered for his verse.
For what will your grandmother be remembered? Will it be her kindness to others?
3. “Our Lives Matter” by M. Maureen Killoran
A Unitarian Universalism leader spoke these words. In this reading, Killoran states:
“May we hold fast to the conviction that what we do with our lives matters, and that a caring world is possible after all.”
Killoran also reminds the reader that in times of sadness, there is room for laughter.
4. “The Dead” by James Joyce
James Joyce wrote a short story collection called Dubliners. “The Dead” was a short story in the collection. In it, the main character’s death was described this way:
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Some choose the two paragraphs proceeding this final statement as a humanist funeral reading.
Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Parents
What readings best represent the life of your mom or dad? Consider the following poems and readings when trying to sum up what this important person meant to you.
5. “From a letter upon the death of John Keats” by Leigh Hunt
Leigh Hunt was a poet and essayist who had many talented friends, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. When Keats died, Hunt wrote the following:
“Tell him that we shall all bear his memory in the most precious part of our hearts, and that the world shall bow their heads to it, as our loves do.”
The reading continues to describe death as a journey, but not in a specifically religious way. This would be an appropriate reading for an agnostic, someone who was not an atheist but did not subscribe to one specific afterlife scenario.
6. “Continuance” by Samuel Butler
This brief poem describes death as sleep. The speaker says that he hopes even though he will be “all-forgetting,” he shall not be “all-forgotten” because he will be remembered in the thoughts and deeds of those he loved.
7. “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Like the previous poem, the speaker in “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is the deceased.
In it, she says that crying at her grave would be pointless because she is no longer there. Instead, she is the “sunlight on ripened grain” and the “gentle autumn rain.”
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8. “Dear Lovely Death” by Langston Hughes
American poet Langston Hughes describes death as “lovely.” He says that death does not kill. Instead, death causes a body to “change into some other thing.” This imagery may be the perfect one to share at your mom’s or dad’s funeral.
Non-Religious Funeral Readings for Another Family Member
Choosing an appropriate funeral reading can be tricky. Here are some poems and other texts that may suit your needs.
9. “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden
Although this poem has an entirely different tone than most of the pieces on our list, “Funeral Blues” is about the devastation we often feel at the loss of a loved one. The last stanza illustrates the grief of the speaker:
“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.”
10. “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrea
Are you celebrating the life of a fallen soldier? This poem would be especially appropriate. “In Flanders Fields” describes the death of a group of soldiers.
“We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”
The poem goes on to ask others if they will continue the noble fight.
11. “Remember Me” by Margaret Mead
Here is another poem that reminds us that we live on in our loved one’s memories. The final lines of “Remember Me” state:
“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.”
12. “Heritage” by Theodore Spencer
This song is particularly poignant to share at the funeral of a loved one who had children. The last part of this rather-lengthy poem states:
“And though, for man, love dies,
And the rose has flowered in vain,
The rose to his children’s eyes
Will flower again, again,
Will flower again out of shadow
To make the brief heart sing,
And the meadowlark from the meadow
Will call again in spring.”
Non-Religious Funeral Readings for a Friend
Are you looking for something to read at a funeral for a non-religious friend? Here are some funeral poems to consider.
13. “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Do you have an adventure-loving friend who died while doing an activity they loved? Consider reading “Requiem” at their funeral.
Even though the poem has a rather religious-sounding title, the text of the poem describes death in a rather matter-of-fact tone.
14. “The Road Goes Ever On” by J.R.R. Tolkien
On his journey, Bilbo Baggins recites many poems. This poem describes more than a physical trip. Instead, it describes the journey of life with death being the “lighted inn” at the end of it.
15. “Song” by Christina Rossetti
You know the heart of your friend. Would they have been the one to say, “sing no sad songs for me”? This is the perfect poem to read at the funeral of someone who would want you to celebrate life instead of crying over the loss of it.
16. “While You Live” by an Anonymous Native American
The speaker in this poem is the deceased. In it, he says “think of me sometimes, but not too much.”
Was your friend a plain-speaking person who would want you to go on with life after he dies? Consider adding “While You Live” to the back of the funeral program.
Non-Religious Funeral Readings About Nature or Science
Are you planning an atheist funeral? Many times the readings at the funeral of an atheist come from scientists or philosophers.
17. “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
The world is greater than us. If this was your friend's philosophy about life, consider reading “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver at their funeral.
This poem says that regardless of your despair, “the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.”
18. “Eulogy from a Physicist” by Aaron Freeman
This reading begins, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The speaker goes on to describe what he would want the physicist to say about scientific life, including how even after death the deceased’s energy is still present. The final line of the reading states:
“According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.”
19. “And Why” by an anonymous Native American author
This beautifully written “poem” is about the circle of life. In it, an unknown questioner asks, “what good are dead leaves?” The speaker answers that dead leaves “nourish the sore earth.” The nourishment from the dead leaves will provide fertile soil for new life.
This simple poem/reading describes the circle of life so that even a child would understand.
20. “Turn Again to Life” by Mary Lee Hall
We think this short poem deserves to be printed in its entirety. This is one of the poems that was read at Princess Diana’s funeral, and it is about the need to “turn again to life and smile.”
“If I should die and leave you here a while,
be not like others sore undone, who keep
long vigils by the silent dust, and weep.
For my sake – turn again to life and smile,
nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
something to comfort other hearts than thine.
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine
and I, perchance may therein comfort you.”
Choosing the Right Words
Picking the readings at a funeral can be especially tricky if the person planning doesn’t share the same beliefs as the person who died. It can also be challenging to plan the funeral for someone whose religious beliefs were unknown.
Give a gift to your loved ones and choose the readings for your funeral in advance.
If you're interested in non-religious funerals, read our guide on civil funeral traditions.
- “Aaron Freeman. Physicist at Your Funeral.” YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAdXtadaFB4
- Remember: 100 Readings for Those in Grief and Bereavement. Compiled by Robert Atwell. Hymns Ancient and Modern LTD. 2005.
- “The Dead.” The Literature Network. www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/
- York, Sarah. “Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death.” John Wiley & Sons. 2002.