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Funeral Poems - The History of the Eulogy & Elegy

By Ben Anton

People almost exclusively associate a funeral eulogy or elegy with the passing of a friend or loved one. While it is true that the modern versions are indeed most often used to lament someone's death, the two distinct literary styles have a long and surprising history.

A Eulogy is used to describe nearly any speech or writing that pays tribute to a person or people that have recently passed away. The word is derived from the two Greek words for "you" and "word." Eulogies can also be used to praise a person that is still alive; this type of eulogy is often used at birthdays and other special occasions. While eulogies are considered appropriate in most funeral situations, some cultures and religions, like Catholicism prefer not to include them in services.

The elegy dates back to classical Greek poetry. The elegiac meter contains two lines, known as a couplet and combines many of these couplets to create the funeral poem.

One of the most influential early elegiac writers was Callimachus whose writings had dramatic impact on such classic Roman poets as Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. Catullus' 85th poem is one of the better know Latin elegies. Written for his lover, Lesbia, the poem expresses conflicting emotion of both love and hatred:

"odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et ecrucior."
"I hate and I love. Why do I do this, you might ask?
I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured"

The feeling of helplessness express here is still very prevalent in modern elegies.

Elegiac poetry was originally championed as simply a way to express the beauty and grandeur of what we consider a classic roman epic poem in a shorter but equally noteworthy manner. Eventually, Roman authors also began to use the elegiac form to express strong emotion as well as tell stories. The use of elegiac poetry is evidenced in some of the works of Ovid, Propertius and others who used it to tell stories like the origin of Rome and the Temple of Apollo.

It was some of the English poets like Lord Tennyson and Thomas Gray that gave the elegy the characteristically somber tone we are now accustomed to. "Lady of Shalott" by Tennyson retained the elegiac tone and paired the praise it offered with a very mournful tone. Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard" inspired many poets of the time to take up the elegy. Most of these other poets used the format to express solitude and mourning in a very general way.

Poets of the Romantic era attempted to use elegiac poetry in a lyrical way. Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed the elegy was "most natural to the reflective mind." After the Romantic period, however, the elegy became more and more synonymous with lamentation. Eventually, the form settled into its common modern use as a way to mourn and celebrate the dead.

The eulogy and elegy both have a long, varied history that has led them to become the most popular poetry form for expressing loss, love and sorrow. Though they differ in origin, age and versatility, both forms of funeral lamentation can be a touching and heartfelt tribute to a newly departed loved one. These memorial poetry formats can be used as a farewell or a way to help the bereaved find comfort and closure in incredibly difficult times. Whether used in a speech, obituary or epitaph, eulogies and elegies are beautiful ways to find the beauty in sadness, the laudation in mournful observance.

~Ben Anton, 2008

Funeral Service Eulogy Poems: Read about honoring a loved one at a memorial service on the Valley of Life website. The website also provides a safe and free online memorial service where you can celebrate your loved one's life.


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