Death poems are a poet’s way of confronting one of life’s most challenging experiences. In the early years of Australian settlement when infant mortality was much higher than it is today, many baby death poems were published in local newspapers. Poems continue to appear in ‘In Memoriam’ columns in newspapers and many contemporary poets write about various aspects of death. Poems are often read at funerals or included in funeral speeches.
Many of the most anthologised Australian poems are death poems, including Charles Harpur’s ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ and Barcroft Boake’s ‘Where the Dead Men Lie’, both commemorating the deaths of those who died while pioneering the land. During the nineteenth century death poems were also often written to commemorate the passing of famous people. Mary Hannay Foott, for example, wrote ‘Charles Dickens’ after his death in 1870, and ‘Wentworth’, in memory of William Charles Wentworth, who died in 1873. On a more personal level, Henry Kendall wrote poems in memory of his fellow poets, Charles Harpur and Adam Lindsay Gordon.
Some years ago, an ABC poll identified Kenneth Slessor’s beautiful elegy ‘Five Bells’ as Australia’s favourite poem. It commemorates the drowning of his friend Joe Lynch in Sydney Harbour, after falling off a ferry. One of Slessor’s last poems, ‘Beach Burial’, deals with the burial of drowned sailors at El Alamein during World War II and was written in 1944. Of many other poems relating to death in wartime, two of the most famous are David Campbell’s ‘Men in Green’ set in New Guinea, and John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lieutenant John Learmonth. A.I.F.’
Some contemporary poets have shown that it possible to write funny death poems as well as the more usual sad death poems. Rodney Hall, for example, includes ‘My coffin is a deckchair’ in his collection Black Bagatelles (1978) and Geoff Page has published ‘Last Rites’ in his Darker and Lighter (2001) as one of the lighter examples.