“Do not stand at my grave and weep”: the options

by Kim on April 25, 2008

It seems to be the poem for our times at funerals:

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
Blah, blah, blah, and on it goes.

But the problem isn’t that the poem is almost unendurably maudlin. What else can you expect in a therapeutic culture where the modernist Cartesian cogito has been replaced by the postmodernist (Princess) Dianaic “I emote, therefore I am”? The problem isn’t even the poem’s creeping pantheism, which (nice guy that I am) I can just about tolerate. No, the decisive difficulty is the last couplet - I’ve referred to it in a previous post - which no Christian can allow:

Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

The first line smacks of psychological denial, the second underscores it with a theological howler.

So when the mourning party want the poem read, I explain the Christian belief that death is real, though not final, and then offer two alternative endings to the poem:

I am not there; in Christ I die.
Or:
I am not there; in God I lie.

Unless the deceased is not a born-again Christian. Then I offer two options. If he was an agnostic, or what Karl Rahner called an “anonymous Christian”, and also allowing for purgatory, I leave the absolute judgement to God and give the guy the benefit of the doubt:

I am not there; decree nisi.

However, if the guy was an atheist, it’s curtains:

I am not there; in hell I fry.

Nice pastoral touch, don’t you think?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1

John Meunier 04.25.08 at 12:40 pm

We talked about this at my license to preach school. Someone used this in a mock funeral we had as a learning exercise. I asked what to do about letting such dreadful theology be part of a Christian funeral.

The ordained elder who was teaching the class said, essentially, that although it is bad theology there probably is not much you can do about it if the family really wants to read it during the service.

I’m not a big fan of that answer, but I sure understand why he said it.

2

Beth 04.25.08 at 1:42 pm

I think this is an interesting comment on why people don’t come to Church any more. It’s because they don’t have to. No-one will hold them to account for any theological mistakes, so what’s the point? If ministers and priests stood up and said “we have standards: here they are. Please try to follow them”, I think people would take Christianity more seriously. This is why the fundamentalists are getting bums on seats and the wishy-washy liberals are preaching to empty pews. So, if someone wants bad theology at a funeral, don’t give it to them. There’s a balance between compassion and theological correctness, to be sure, but it can only be pastorally harmful to let Christians (I’m not talking about rent-a-priest funerals for agnostics/atheists) believe in this kind of tripe.

3

PamBG 04.25.08 at 2:27 pm

If ministers and priests stood up and said “we have standards: here they are. Please try to follow them”, I think people would take Christianity more seriously.

It’s actually theoretical until some proper ‘marketing studies’ could be done, but I completely disagree.

At worst, fundamentalists get angry people who want a line drawn between ‘us and them’. At best, fundamentalists get people who need everything defined and who can’t deal with any shades of grey.

My response to this post as well as David’s ‘don’t bother with anyone who isn’t a genuine prospect’ post is: God is a generous God. Deal with it. (I hope I’m not contradicting myself now!)

4

Earl 04.25.08 at 3:01 pm

In the midst of grief family members and friends of the deceased may request that a pastor use material that is possibly inappropriate. In such a situation it is incumbent upon the pastor with understanding and tact to communicate this to the family. Approached with kindness and firmness the matter can almost always be resolved. Occasionally it may be necessary for one to step aside from participation in a service. In that rare instance one will face criticism for supposed arrogance, insensitivity, etc. At the same time one may take comfort in the knowledge that there will be individuals who will recognize the integrity in your refusal to comply with an illegitimate request.

The best way to deal with this matter is preemptively. Policy statements are a part of the working documents of the local church. These are carefully prepared with regard to weddings, receptions, family reunions, etc. No less thoughtful attention should be given when the issue at hand is a funeral. A church needs to have a clear wedding policy detailing who may use the facilities or request the official services of the Minister, what material (ie., music, poetry, etc) will be permitted, what will and will not be expected of those who desire to use the church for a wedding. A similar clearly stated detailed policy should be in place to guide those who wish to request the use of the church or the services of the Pastor in a funeral.

5

Kim 04.25.08 at 4:00 pm

I am not into “policy statements”. I prefer to work (if you like) not strategically but tactically, i.e. with practical theology (is there any other kind?) and experience interfacing each pastoral situation as it arises. As a matter of fact, I have been asked for this poem to be read at funerals on at least three occasions. Each time, sensitive to the domestic wreckage, with the family gathered in the intimacy of the sitting room, I have explained why the last couplet is both theologically inappropriate and psychologically unhelpful (though in less arid terms), and suggested the (serious) alternatives; and each time the mourners have found my clarifications helpful and an alternative entirely acceptable. At least I think they have. In short, making the appropriate alteration to the poem is not a problem.

Another point. If my own experience is representative, nowadays ministers almost always hear - in our culture of death-denial - the mourners insist that they want the funeral not to be a sad occasion but a “celebration”. Again, I try to lead them to see that a funeral must be both, that it is all about creating the space to commemorate the dead (and to remember accurately: stained-glass portraits in the tribute/eulogy are another potentially grief-arresting hazard - better say nothing than to bear false witness), to acknowledge and feel the pain of loss, to reflect on the mystery of life and death, and to hear the Christian resurrection-hope that (as the URC Service Book [1989] puts it) “death is not the ultimate calamity that it seems; that we can be enabled to face it despite fear, anger, bitternes, or guilt.” In the context of the ultimate, the penultimate must be give its due.

6

Dave Faulkner 04.26.08 at 3:22 pm

Kim,

Thoughtful post - thank you. I’ve riffed on it here, touching on one or two other popular poems, such as those by W H Auden and Henry Scott Holland. Holland’s ‘Death is nothing at all’ is another villain that turns grief into denial, in my opinion.

7

Brian 04.27.08 at 4:43 pm

it seems your taking this in a totally religious perspective. What if religion isnt behind its being told at funerals? what if it has nothing to do with believing in the bible etc? it could just be a psychological cushion, or an abstract look on spirituality…..or are you guys all devout christians?

that or im totally off. if thats the case just ignore me.

8

Dave Faulkner 04.27.08 at 7:41 pm

Brian, you’ve wandered in among the God Squad! But we won’t ignore you. I know it isn’t my blog, but I’m sure we’d all welcome your thoughts, too.

9

Richard 04.27.08 at 7:54 pm

Ditto what Dave F said. Welcome, Brian.

10

Dave Warnock 04.27.08 at 11:15 pm

Brian,

Don’t know about devout Christians, but you have run into a gaggle of friends that includes quite a big % of ministers. Most of them don’t bite though.

11

Sean Wardale 05.06.08 at 10:01 am

….oh what a bleak outlook. Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die; is a metaphor. Given the christian belief of afterlife in heaven one should be able to grasp this concept quite easily. Pointing out flaws in christian theoloy is one thing for a priest, perhaps a self examination of a christians morality would help better your outlook.

12

Juan Carlos 05.16.08 at 10:25 pm

I lament your angry response to grieving families by imposing believes and rewriting history to suit your ideological needs, not those of the people that come to you for a “service”

The poem you site is Viking and it has strong roots in the runes and, actually a very recent development in physics, the string theory, which, in may ways, you are right embodies a sentiment of our times.

Why should the value of life be only b defined or validated by its cease to exist? “I am not here, I did not die” is a poetic phrase like so many in the bible or other holy books. It merely means that the value of my life has not ended, nor has it become more important by my death. It means that my life i/was/will continue to be an important as the experiences you, the reader, auditor continue to have. It is a call to cherish what we do have.

My sympathy to you for your lack of imagination and sensitivity to your congregations’ needs. You sound like someone who may have been happier as a dictator and resents deeply being a civil servant to your people, which, in your hailed Christianity would have been what you ought to be about.

Has it occurred to you that God may be light? That all of the properties that we have personified and translated into metaphors in countless holly books are mere the properties of light? The source of all energy, the definer of reality as we know it, all encompassing, constant and never ending.

And if he String Theaory is true then there would be a marriage of religion and physics that would serve us better than any dogma ever has. This almost ancient poem knew, or suspected, these things already and perhaps that is why it calls out attention in this day and age.

As men we have already done all of the things that God was supposedly the only one to be able to do: created light (electricity), created life (cloning), created the world (internet and virtual worlds) and now are discovering that we are not solid flesh and blood anymore, but we are the stuff of God itself. We are God. We are light. Re-read the poem with these things in mind and maybe angels, your angels or whatever your beliefs procure in your head will make more sense of it.

13

Beth 05.17.08 at 2:15 am

“As men we have already done all of the things that God was supposedly the only one to be able to do…”

Electricity was not created, it was a potential that was discovered and harnessed by perceptive scientists. Just watch a lightning storm if you really think that electricity is man-made.

Cloning doesn’t create life, it copies it.

The internet is not the world, it is a very large community of users which only exists inasmuch as those users exist. The world would continue to exist if human life were wiped out; the internet would not (unless you think that The Matrix was factual). The world supports and sustains life; the internet does not.

All that we as human beings can do is use what nature makes available to us. We have found ever more sophisticated ways of doing this, to the extent that we can now create the illusion of such complex systems as life. But you show me a computer-system that’s actually self-aware, and then I may start to entertain the possibility that man has usurped the power traditionally ascribed to God.

Your light metaphor is also lacking. It doesn’t account for many of the traditional properties of God as Christians believe in him. In what was is light loving or merciful? How do you explain the Biblical tales of miracles or of divine judgement? How did light become embodied as a human being and walk on earth? Your light theory may work for some religions - I don’t know. But I really don’t see how it explains Christianity.

14

Wendy Pettipher 06.22.08 at 11:14 pm

My Father sadly died last sunday - just a week ago, the funeral is on Thursday. I have always thought that I would know what to say ‘when the time came’ but I find I am at a loss - unless of course we are to keep the congregation is church way past their tea time as I extol his many virtues. Somebody told me abou the ‘do not stand at my grave and weep’ poem and thus I found your site here… I certainly dont want to sound trite on the day - but it does say everything that I believe - clearly its not to be taken at face value - but for the meaning - I know Dad is dead - for sure - but I just as wholeheartedly know that he is still with me - in my head - in fact now he knows all my secrets which I find extremely comforting - so is that denial - or as I prefer to believe, that his spirit and his values and teaching still live on in my life now? I probably will use it - unless somebody could PLEASE help me to find something else that will give my mother comfort and somehow be able to let me say - in 5 minutes or less just how much I miss him (which I havnt even begun to experience yet) and how thankful I am that I was lucky to have him as my father and my guide. Thanks… Wendy

15

Kim 06.23.08 at 10:17 am

Hi Wendy,

I am sorry for your loss. And as for your loss for words, death tongue-ties us all. I recently discovered the following poem by Alice Walker. Perhaps you will find it a comfort for both yourself and your mother. It’s entitled “Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll see you in the morning”.

Looking down into my father’s
dead face
for the last time
my mother said without
tears, without smiles
without regrets
but with civility
“Good night, Willie Lee, I’ll see you
in the morning.”
And it was then I knew that the healing
of all our wounds
is forgiveness
that permits a promise of our return
at the end.

You might also like Wendell Berry’s “Three Elegaic Poems”. Here is III:

He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.

The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.

Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter

than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.

He is hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.

Both poems are informed by a deep Christian faith.

I trust that your father’s “service of death and resurrection” gives you encouragement and hope, and an abiding sense that, as Thornton Wilder put it, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love.”

Every blessing,
Kim

16

wendy 07.17.09 at 8:29 pm

Kim

It is over a year now since I visitied this website - and I just wanted you, if you are looking here, to know that I found your words still comforting. I dont know that I will ever complete the grieving process as they call it - but you come to realise in the fullness of time that the bridge is indeed love because without that great love in our hearts how would we ever finally come to understand our loved ones - those that have lost will understan this because i surely did not before my loss. thank you and Godbless.

17

Kim 07.18.09 at 5:09 pm

Hi Wendy,

Yep, I’m still here (though some might wish I weren’t!).

What you say is so true, in the most comprehensive sense: only love really understands - anyone or anything.

God bless you too - and yours.
I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.

Love,
Kim

18

Suzanne 11.01.09 at 6:12 pm

I came to this site while looking up a few lines from a poem … I shall sleep when I die ( or something)

I read the whole post but these last few lines caught my eye:

“However, if the guy was an atheist, it’s curtains:

I am not there; in hell I fry.

Nice pastoral touch, don’t you think? ”

No, it’s not a nice pastoral touch .. it’s just a silly statement, not based in any reality. Atheists don’t believe. Period. Not in god, not in heaven and not in hell.

Your ‘pastoral touch’ is nothing but a snippy statement, snickering at a dead atheist because you think he/she is going to hell.

This is what lives in your ‘Christian heart’ ??? Very sad.

19

Richard 11.01.09 at 7:30 pm

>> “Your ‘pastoral touch’ is nothing but a snippy statement, snickering at a dead atheist because you think he/she is going to hell”

I wouldn’t normally try to speak for Kim, but I can assure you Suzanne that you’ve misunderstood his humour. You’ve arrived at a conclusion which is actually the opposite of what Kim believes.

20

sean 11.16.11 at 6:48 am

Bloody Christians, you think the whole world revolves around you, what about the the families that had to go through the loss of their loved ones, how do you think they would feel if you said their poem wasn’t theological, go burn in your ‘theoretical’ hell.

21

Kim 11.17.11 at 1:55 pm

sean, I fear you will be spending some time in the Comma Cauterisation section of Punctuation Purgatory.

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