Since 1932, when florist and Baltimore-based homemaker Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” quite a few musicians have felt compelled to set the poem to music. Frye’s wise, comforting lines have been transformed into choral compositions, pop songs, rock songs and folk songs. Its lines have even been interpolated with other lyrics. It’s a poem that seems to inspire creativity in musicians of many different genres.
After having listened to many (I’m certain not all) of these pieces, I’ve found British composer Paul K. Joyce’s version to be especially captivating and haunting. It appears on the soundtrack for the “The Snow Queen,” a 2005 BBC TV movie developed as a vehicle for a set of operatic songs Joyce composed. Originally, Joyce set “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” to music for the funeral of a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. He later incorporated the song into the score for “The Snow Queen.”
“Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” is a 12-line sonnet and the only known poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye. She composed the lines on a brown paper shopping bag, inspired by the plight of her house guest, a young German Jewish woman named Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was unable to visit her dying mother because of anti-semitic unrest in burgeoning Nazi Germany. There is no definitive version of the poem, because Frye never published or copyrighted it — she circulated the many copies she made privately. (On her decision not to copyright the poem, Frye had this to say: “I thought it belonged to the world; it didn’t belong to me. I still feel that way…it was written out of love, for comfort. If I took money for it, it would lose its value…maybe I’m a nut.”)
Recently I saw a printed funeral program that included a quote by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Taken from his book “No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom For Life,” it says: “This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies. All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free.” I was struck by how similar in spiritual perspective the Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s quote is to that of the 1930’s Baltimore housewife and florist, which reads:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I highly recommend taking a quiet moment to enter the world Paul K. Joyce has created with his musical adaptation of this beautiful poem in the video below. Click here to read the complete poem.