Choosing readings for funerals and memorials

Choosing a reading for a funeral or memorial service is a wonderful way to reflect the person who has died, share a consoling or inspiring message, and allow people to reflect and remember during the funeral.

By Lucy Clay · May 27, 2021

The process of choosing (and maybe delivering) a reading or poem at a funeral or memorial can feel like a gift to the person who has died. This article offers some tips for choosing, and some advice for reading your choice on the day.

How do I choose a reading or poem?

It can be difficult to know where to begin when choosing a reading for a funeral or memorial service. Facing lots of different choices can seem overwhelming and sometimes it can feel that there is a lot of pressure to make the right decision. Here we’ve tried to identify some initial considerations that you might want to use to guide your search and included a few examples of the many different types of readings available; these examples are by no means exhaustive and many more are available online and in print.

There aren’t usually many rules about what can and can’t be used as a funeral reading. Some people like them to reflect the person that has died or to provide comfort to those that are missing them. There are no right and wrong choices, and the most important things is that the choice is right for you and the person that has died.

Initial thoughts

Location of the funeral and speakers

The location and/or officiant of the funeral might be working with restrictions which will affect what can and cannot be included in the service. For example, some places of worship and faith leaders might feel that it is inappropriate to include a non-religious reading, and Humanist celebrants might not feel comfortable including a religious text, if they are to read it. It would be helpful to understand any guidance in place so that you can choose readings accordingly. You will be able to understand any guidance by checking with your funeral director or officiant.

Wishes of the person that has died

The person that has died might have already requested a reading to be read at their funeral. You might find such requests in a letter of wishes (often annexed to a Will), or you might ask those that the person was close to if they ever mentioned a specific request. Not everyone will have left reading requests, so don’t be disheartened or surprised if you don’t find any.

Length and time considerations

Make sure that your chosen reading fits within the guide time. You can check with your officiant and/or funeral director who will be able to advise you of an appropriate length. If necessary, the rest of the service can usually be changed slightly to accommodate a lengthy reading.

How would you feel about coming across the reading again? Once read at a funeral, the reading may become charged with emotion that it hadn’t had before. After the funeral some readings may be more visible than others – the lyrics of a well-known song or popular Psalm, for example – so it might be worth considering whether you think that seeing or hearing the reading unexpectedly will feel consoling, or more challenging.

Types of readings

Original words

You might like to use the opportunity to share something that the person themselves had written, or you might consider writing a piece yourself. Or, you could ask someone to write something on your behalf. You might know someone who has a talent with words, or there are professional poets and writers who would help you to create something specifically for the funeral.

Religious and spiritual readings

Did the person that has died have any religious or spiritual beliefs? Did they grow up in a religious tradition but did no longer practice? Would the people attending the funeral appreciate a religious reading?

If the person that has died followed a particular religion it might be appropriate to include a reading from that religion’s texts. If you are familiar with the faith you might be well placed to source a passage – if you’re less familiar then a good starting place might be to ask an elder in the organisation or a religious leader (who may well be conducting the service) and then will be able to make a recommendation.

Even if the person that has died wasn’t known to be religious you might still like to consider including a scriptural reading from the religion they grew up in. Sometimes people find it a comfort to include something in acknowledgement to their heritage, even if they were not practicing.

The things they enjoyed

What did the person who has died like to read? Did they have a favourite book or author? Did they have a favourite story as a child? Did they have any favourite song lyrics?

If your person had a particular favourite book it might be comforting to include a passage from this as a reading at their funeral. If possible, you could look through any book collections that they may have had or speak to others close to them about books that they had mentioned. You might find that by speaking with others who knew them well that you find inspiration for a fitting reading.

Readings from literature

If no immediate favourites spring to mind then you might like to look to literature for ideas. There are lots of poems, passages from books and other writings which, whilst not primarily intended for use at a funeral, can be used as funeral readings. If you feel it is appropriate, reflects the person that has died or is a comfort to those that are missing them, you can use it as a reading.

Sourcing readings

Once you have highlighted any requirements you might to be to do a simple internet search to begin looking. For example:

‘religious / spiritual / non-religious poems / prose’
‘spiritual poems for funerals’
‘non-religious comforting excerpts for the bereaved’

If you are considering including the work of a particular author you could include their name in the search term;

‘popular short excerpts from Matt Haig’
‘poems by Gaia Holmes’

Beyond internet search engines, websites such as Goodreads have sections dedicated to quotes and passages from literature, though these are often quite short. Anthologies of popular funeral readings are also readily available online and sites like Pinterest can often prove fruitful for inspiration.

On the day

Delivering a eulogy or reading a passage at a funeral is very important and meaningful for many people. However, for some people, speaking publicly can be difficult, especially at an emotionally charged time. If you are planning on reading a piece yourself but feel a little nervous then these tips may help.

  • Practice reading the piece beforehand (to others if you feel it would help).
  • People often speed up if they are nervous so practice reading more slowly than you normally would. This will help those listening to take in what you say.
  • It can help to print out the reading (keep a spare copy too) and mark up any pauses or reminders.
  • Remember that it is okay to show emotions, and this may even make the reading even more powerful for the people listening.
  • Arrange for someone to stand in as a backup should you need them, and share the piece with them beforehand – if you decide at the time that you would rather not speak then they can step up in your place.

Please remember, there are no right or wrong decisions, and that the most important thing is that the reading is right for you and the person that has died. For further advice do speak to your funeral director or officiant, who will be happy to help and guide your thoughts.

Lucy Clay is an independant funeral director for Full Circle Funerals