Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn his eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson observed, “We are always saying farewell in this world — always standing at the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory; some human meaning, from the silence — something which is precious and gone.” Eventually, in the course of our lives, we will be standing at that precipice — paralyzed by the agony of heartbreak and the crushing sense of loss. During that initial shock of grief, we are at a loss for words, but paradoxically, we turn to words for solace, for healing, for meaning, and ultimately for some glimmer of hope. The hope, of course, is that the memory of a loved one ushers in a profound gratitude of having had that person touch our lives to bring out the best in us; and by remembering them as we continue on in life, we honor them. Maya Angelou’s beautiful and touching poem, When Great Trees Fall, strikes the perfect balance between recognizing the despair and pain of grieving and the hope and joy that blooms after mourning.

When Great Trees Fall
by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

For further reading: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou (1994)

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