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One of the most popular bereavement poems in English, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” holds even more allure for its mysterious origins and many reinventions. A traditional, rhyming anti-elegy, the poem uses imagery and metaphor commonly associated with death and rebirth. The poem’s voice, a direct address, reaches out to readers in an emotional appeal. This personal, intimate connection sustains the poem’s popularity across generations.
Its first appearance in an American poetry journal establishes the poem’s existence as early as 1934, then entitled “Immortality,” but variant versions and authorship claims have suggested deeper cultural roots. Some readers identify the poem as Irish in origin; others believe the poem reconfigures a Native American narrative.
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Heard in television shows, radio, video game narratives and countless funeral services, the poem developed a life of its own, becoming in many ways the property of its audience. Versions exist in several languages, and it has been set to music. Investigations into its authorship, most proving inconclusive, continue to fascinate literary critics, media scholars, and the popular imagination.
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“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” cannot be ascribed to a definitive author. Its uncertain origin contributes to its beloved status as a poem of the people, continuously rewritten, moving ever closer to anonymous beginnings. One authorial candidate, Clare Harner, studied journalism at Kansas State, wrote for school publications, and eventually published several more poems. Her additional work resembles “Immortality” in tone, diction, and imagery. Mary Elizabeth Frye, the more commonly cited claimant, did not otherwise write poems or seem to have any literary aspirations. She worked as a florist in Baltimore, Maryland. Frye’s story of events did not come out until 1983, years after Harner’s death in 1977. Frye claimed the poem came to her spontaneously as she felt sympathy for a friend who had lost her mother.
The first published version of the poem appeared in The Gypsy, a magazine of popular verse. The journal names Clare Harner as author of the poem titled “Immortality”; but for a few minor changes, “Immortality” became Mary Frye’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.”
In Mary Frye’s account, the poem circulated only among family and friends, printed on postcards. Despite the seeming impossibility of establishing Frye’s version of private circulation, many printed and online instances of the poem today name Frye as the author, even alongside the Harner wording of the poem. Frye’s authorship claims coincided with a resurgence of interest in the poem after John Wayne recited the poem at Howard Hawkes’ funeral in 1977, and a 1979 television movie Better Late Than Never featured the poem in its script. As its popularity continued to grow, writers of the Dear Abby advice column conducted research on its authorship, only to conclude in 2004 without confirming either woman as the true author.
The story of “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” demonstrates the power and speed of misinformation in media. The persona of Frye’s inspiration, identified as Margaret Schwarzkopf, changes in each retelling. At times she takes the form of a little girl; other versions describe her as Frye’s best friend. Some narratives call her a visitor, a neighbor, a friend of neighbors. Even the most widely reproduced photograph of supposed author Mary Frye turns out to be an image of another woman: the waved hair and half-smile in the familiar black-and-white photo belongs to disability advocate Mary Elizabeth Switzer, not Mary Elizabeth Frye. The misidentification is a Google failure now embedded in the poem’s myth.
Readers must approach the poem, then, with critical reasoning along with the understanding that its provenance may remain as buried as the poem’s speaker. A recent college graduate in Kansas receiving a postcard from strangers in Baltimore in 1932 seems an unlikely way for this poem to have been plagiarized. Harner probably wrote the world’s most popular bereavement poem when her brother died tragically in 1932. Harner went on to publish more poems, in a similar authorial voice and using similar imagery. “Immortality” was reprinted in The Kansas City Times, to be seen by a much bigger audience than The Gypsy enjoyed. Clare Harner married, became Clare Harner Lyon, and worked for many years in publishing.
Of all the plausible ways the same collection of words could have been produced within a couple of years by the same two women, many miles apart and unknown to each other, one of the most uninvolved possibilities is that a florist in Baltimore saw a poem in a newspaper from Kansas, one of four states producing 95% of the sunflower market. But no original printings of the Frye postcards exist among the ephemera on antiquarian bookstore sites or among their catalogues. No library holds a copy in their Americana collections. While no one can know why Mary Elizabeth Frye claimed authorship of this poem, the most rational explanation may be that the poem’s 1970s resurgence brought forth for her a memory, a story—a myth that can neither be confirmed nor refuted.
Unknown. “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” 1932. Newspapers.com.
This narrative poem in rhyming tetrameter couplets consoles mourners in a soothing direct address from beyond the grave. The speaker of the poem, apparently a departed soul, tells the bereaved reader not to grieve, confirming their continued presence in surrounding nature. While there seems to be an intimate connection between speaker and reader, the features and descriptions in the poem’s text maintain universal relevance. The poem’s balance of personal and universal no doubt contributes to its ongoing appeal.
After asking the reader not to visit the graveside, the speaker denies their presence where the body has been interred. Employing a common euphemism or metaphor, the speaker refutes death itself, claiming they do not “sleep” (Line 4), and therefore must be awake and active. From that point, the speaker lists many places they still exist, far from lying still in the grave.
The spirit’s voice describes settings common to fall and winter, following the mood and symbols common in bereavement poetry. But the darkness lifts by the end of the poem as the speaker identifies with daybreak, rather than night. Movement—in wind and in the motion of ascending birds—proves the speaker still inhabits the world with a force resembling life. The speaker begs the reader not to stand at the burial place, insisting that nothing is there, while the spirit remains active, unlimited—not dead.