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
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.