Almost all famous poets have written something about death and dying, likely because it’s the great unknown.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Beautiful Poems About Death
- Poems About the Death of a Family Member
- Poems About Dying Young
- Poems About Love and Death
- Uplifting Poems About Death
Here are some poems about death and dying. These aren’t necessarily funeral poems that you would want to use at the service of a loved one, but they could be.
Tip: If you're choosing poetry to recite at a funeral, you might be interested in our post-loss checklist. It can guide you through all of the steps you might need to take, from funeral planning to seeking grief support.
Beautiful Poems About Death
We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, we learned that from a poet. Here are some poems about death that we think are particularly beautiful, but you may or may not agree.
1. “O, Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman had a lot to say about death. He wrote this particular piece following the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was popularized in the 1980s by its use in “Dead Poet’s Society.”
2. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray
The speaker in this poem wanders a lonely cemetery and ponders the lives of the people buried there. Even though this is not a poem to be read at a funeral, take a moment to read the beautiful words.
3. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” by Emily Dickinson
In the most profound moment of the speaker’s life, she hears a fly buzz. She had prepared for death by willing her keepsakes. She was ready to meet her maker, and right at this most spiritual moment, she hears a fly — and then she dies.
This is not necessarily a poem that you would want to use in a loved one’s eulogy, but it is, nevertheless, a beautiful poem.
4. “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson deserves a bit more praise. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” she describes how death “kindly stopped” for her. Most of Dickinson’s work was published posthumously.
5. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats
The beautiful lady without mercy meets a knight, but then she leaves him as he falls ill. Even if the story is not about a lovely person, it is a beautifully written ballad that continues to get attention today.
Poems About the Death of a Family Member
Poets sometimes turn to their craft to sort through the complicated emotions that arise at the time of a loved one’s death. Here are some examples that you may or may not have seen before now.
6. “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas asks his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as the father lies on his sickbed. Perhaps you have requested the same thing of your loved one fighting a dreaded disease.
7. “To My Mother” by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe sustained a lot of loss in his short life. This poem, “To My Mother” is not about the death of his biological mom. It is, in fact, about the death of his mother-in-law. Poe’s biological mom died when he was very young.
8. “Tribute to Mother” by John Greenleaf Whittier
Regret is a common theme in poems about mothers. In this poem, Whittier regrets his “selfish moods” that caused his mother to have to reprimand him. The speaker understood his mother’s motive as he grew older.
9. “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye
This poem is written from the point of view of the deceased. In it, the speaker tells her loved ones that standing at the foot of a grave in a cemetery is pointless because she is not there. Instead, the deceased is the “thousand winds that blow,” and the “diamond glints on snow.”
10. “A Child of Mine” by Edgar Guest
Edgar Guest lost two children. He wrote about it in this poem called, “A Child of Mine.” Amazingly, Guest tries to end his poem on a somewhat positive note. He writes:
“We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes,
And try to understand.”
Poems About Dying Young
Billy Joel popularized this famous quote about death: “Only the good die young.” Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, here are some rather famous poems about people dying young.
11. “The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell
This poem describes the death of a young soldier in World War II. Its last line, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose” is meant to describe the brutality of war.
12. “Out, Out —” by Robert Frost
Many high schoolers are given the assignment to memorize “The Road Not Taken,” which is another poem by Robert Frost about choices. This poem, “Out, Out —” is about a young man who dies after his hand is accidentally severed by a buzz saw. It’s traditionally seen as an anti-war poem, and the title should remind students of Shakespeare about the poignant scene in Macbeth.
13. “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman
The poet describes the glory a young runner earns by winning a race through a marketplace. Those rejoicing in his victory carry the runner into town. He then explains what it is like when the same runner is moved to a “stiller town,” also known as a cemetery.
14. “A Mother’s Lament for the loss of her only son” by Robert Burns
Robert Burns was a Scottish poet who was most famous for his poems “A Red, Red Rose.”
15. “From a Gravestone in Sutcombe Churchyard, Devon” by Anonymous
We know that this is not a traditional poem, but it is a beautiful sentiment about someone who died too young. It was found on the gravestone in a churchyard in Devon, England.
The lovely bud, so young, so fair
Called off by earthly doom,
Just came to show how sweet a flower
In paradise could bloom.
Poems About Love and Death
Love and death inspire great poetry. Here are some verses about two different types of love, although all of the poems end in tragedy.
16. “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou wrote this poem in honor and respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though death is compared with one of a “great tree” and it causes people to recoil, it can also result in a great thing. Angelou’s last few lines were:
“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
17. “Le Lac” by Alphonse de Lamartine
On the shores of the lake, two lovers meet. They promise to return to each other the following year, but, you guessed it, one of the lovers dies. The poem was initially written in French.
18. “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Raven” might come to mind as Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous death poem, but don’t forget about “Annabel Lee.” Poe describes how angels were jealous of the love between him and Annabel Lee, so the angels sent a wind that chilled and killed his lover.
19. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost’s poem is a good reminder that all things eventually die. His poem begins, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.”
This poem was popularized when it was used in S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”
Uplifting Poems About Death
Not all poems about death are depressing. Here are some rather uplifting poems about death.
20. “The Mower” by Philip Larkin
One wouldn’t think that a poem about a hedgehog killed by a lawnmower would show up on a list of uplifting poems about death, but the last couplet gives us a gentle reminder of how we should live:
“Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.”
21. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith
If you are a fan of poetry, you should consider spreading your wings every once in a while and look at the work of modern writers. In this piece, Tracy K. Smith speculates how the dead must react to seeing the universe for the first time.
22. “Death” by Joe Brainard
Joe Brainard describes death as a “perfectly normal thing to do.” When we think of all who came before us and all who will come after us, this puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
23. “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne
We can’t have a list of poems about death without including “Death Be Not Proud” on the list. In this poem, the speaker tells death that it should not be proud. After all, death will die when everyone gains admittance into the afterlife.
What Are Your Favorite Poems?
Do you have a favorite poem about death? Maybe you remember one from high school English class or a death documentary.
These poems are not intended to be used at your loved one’s funeral service but they are designed to make you think about the end of life.
You’ll be there someday, so make plans for your funeral services now to make it easier for your loved ones when your time comes.