Uplifting Readings for Nonreligious Services

Often called celebrations of life, nonreligious memorial services may include inspirational, hopeful and comforting quotes or readings. Here are a few popular poems and passages to consider for an atheist, humanist or secular funeral that help set an uplifting tone.

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Popular nonreligious readings and poems

The following four poems have stood the test of time to bring comfort to those in deep grief.

Emily Dickinson – ‘Death Sets a Thing Significant’

Dickinson’s poem describes how when someone passes, even mundane aspects of their daily life can suddenly feel very important.

Death sets a Thing significant

The Eye had hurried by

Except a perished Creature

Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little Workmanships

In Crayon, or in Wool,

With "This was last Her fingers did" —

Industrious until —

The Thimble weighed too heavy —

The stitches stopped — by themselves —

And then 'twas put among the Dust

Upon the Closet shelves —

A Book I have — a friend gave —

Whose Pencil — here and there —

Had notched the place that pleased Him —

At Rest — His fingers are —

Now — when I read — I read not —

For interrupting Tears —

Obliterate the Etchings

Too Costly for Repairs.

‘Afterglow,’ by Helen Lowrie-Marshall

From her 1968 poetry collection, Moments of Awareness, Lowrie-Marshall’s short poem conveys the hope that happy memories will remain after a loved one has passed. Written from the perspective of the person who has died, the poem asks loved ones to remember to good times rather than dwell on their sadness.

‘Immortality,’ by Clare Harner

First published in 1934, this poem is sometimes known by its opening lines, "Do not stand / by my grave, and weep." It's often falsely attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye, but the earliest known version of “Immortality” was published in a literary magazine that named Harner as its author. A very popular funeral poem, it’s been used in funeral readings and referenced in many films, songs, novels and other poems in the decades since its publication.

‘Sonnet 30,’ by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s writing has been a staple of funeral readings for centuries. First published in 1609, “Sonnet 30” depicts feelings of sadness after the loss of a close friend before concluding that good memories of the friend help end grieving.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus'd to flow,

For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,

And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,

And moan th' expense of many a vanish'd sight;

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end.

Nonreligious reading for a grandparent: J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Roads Go Ever On’

People who've lost a beloved grandparent may wish to read a passage that reflects the wisdom and comfort they imparted during their long lives. A couple of verses from Tolkien's “Roads Go Ever On” are nice options.

Variations on verses from the “walking song” created by Tolkien for his book The Hobbit and his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, appear throughout the books. Though not specifically about death, the words of the song are about fond memories of a long journey that has come to an end.

Nonreligious reading for a parent: Christine Currah’s ‘In Remembrance’

The death of a mother or father can be especially profound. “In Remembrance” is a popular short poem published in 2002 that pays tribute to the way a parent’s legacy can live on in the support, encouragement and love which they gave to their children.

The poem focuses on the great things that a parent did and how this keeps the memory of the parent alive, rather than on the sadness of loss, makes it a powerful choice for a positive reading.

Nonreligious reading for a spouse: John Donne’s ‘No Man Is an Island’

It can be overwhelming to try to find the right words to honor your husband or wife. This famous meditation serves as a reminder of the human connections that endure even after death.

In 1624, Donne published Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Together With Death's Due, a book of prose prayers and meditations from which "No Man Is an Island" is derived. Written while recovering from a serious illness that brought him close to death, this passage is Donne’s most famous work. In it, he describes the awe-inspiring interconnectedness of all humankind.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Nonreligious reading for a child: Viktor E. Frankl’s ‘The Doctor and the Soul’

When facing the loss of someone very young, it can be hard not to focus on the life they should have had. Frankl reminds us that even a short life can be a good life, filled with love and cherished memories.

Taken from the psychiatrist’s book The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, the passage expresses that the value of a life ought not to be measured simply by how long it lasted.

We cannot, after all, judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it; we must judge by the richness of the contents ... Sometimes the "unfinisheds" are among the most beautiful symphonies.

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