Funeral poems are a subset of death poems. Along with marriages, funerals are one of the few occasions in contemporary life when people come together to share either the joy or the grief of the occasion. Funeral poems have long been written in Australia to commemorate dead children, something that was much more common in the nineteenth century than it is today. Now we are more likely to find funeral poems written for relatives, especially fathers, mothers and grandparents, as well as many written in memory of friends.
In ‘My First Angel’ Katherine Gallagher movingly describes the funeral of her baby sister when she herself is still a child. Country funerals of the past are recalled by Philip Hodgins in ‘A Memorial Service’ and Geoff Page in ‘The Lid’, the latter describing a man who exceeds the usual expectations of male rectitude in his intense grief for his dead wife. For a short funeral poem, one could not do better than Les Murray’s ‘A Countryman’ which is just three lines long. While Margaret Scott in ‘The Funeral’ describes a bleak burial lacking in the ‘protecting rituals of belief’, John Kinsella’s ‘Funeral Oration’ takes place with the grave surrounded by pink blossom.
Some contemporary poets have shown that it possible to write funny funeral poems as well as the more usual sad poems. Rodney Hall, for example, includes ‘My coffin is a deckchair’ in his collection Black Bagatelles (1978), a series of poems about death. Geoff Page has published ‘Last Rites’ in his Darker and Lighter (2001) as one of the lighter examples. It describes a friend’s request to be wrapped up after death and consigned to the ‘wheelie bin’, though of course not the one for recycling! In ‘Ashes’, from the same collection, he writes about the six hundred boxes of ashes waiting to be collected at a funeral home.