Reading at a funeral – 16 tips to help you get through

Whether you have been asked to read at a funeral, or you have chosen to, delivering a funeral reading can be a daunting prospect. 

Public speaking is ranked highly in any poll of fears – in fact, it’s often said that people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of death itself! Add to that the emotional distress of the grief you are likely to be experiencing, and you can see why being asked to read at a funeral feels like a very big deal indeed. 

You might be reading a poem or you could be delivering a eulogy or tribute. Short or long, remember that reading at a funeral is an honour, so however nervous you might be, this role is an act of love and respect for the person who has died. However, I do realise that can add to the pressure even more…

Never fear! This post will get you through!

Let’s look first at the different types of funeral reading:

If you are reading a funeral tribute, the likelihood is that you wrote it yourself (see ‘how to write a funeral tribute’ for tips on how to do this), and so you will have the advantage of it being in your ‘voice’ already. This will make it more comfortable to read, especially if you write it in a speaking style. However, due to the nature of a tribute or eulogy, you will be more likely to be at the lectern for longer. There is advice below for getting through it.

Prose readings might be shorter, but they could contain phrases or words that don’t roll off the tongue so easily, especially if they are religious texts or written in a very formal or old fashioned style. Don’t panic if your funeral reading is like this though – all the tips below will help you read with confidence.

There are a lot of funeral poems out there, and poems make up the majority of funeral readings. But poems aren’t always the easiest thing to read, even though they’re often the shorter option and therefore tempting for the nervous reader. Again, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered for reading a funeral poem with style!

How to read at a funeral with confidence – 16 tips to help you through

1. Remember you have a safety net

A good celebrant will be able to take over at any point during your funeral reading. I always ask readers to give me their words ahead of time so that I can do this. If we haven’t met before, I will introduce myself to you before the funeral. When it comes to your reading, I’ll announce it but I’ll be looking out for your subtle acknowledgement you’re ok to go ahead. If I see you shaking your head, I’ll read it on your behalf. 

Or, if you are halfway through your funeral reading and just can’t carry on, a short nod to me will tell me to take over. 

There is no shame in this whatsoever, so please don’t beat yourself up if you find you can’t go through with a funeral reading you had planned to deliver. It doesn’t mean you’ve let anyone down.

2. Get advice from your celebrant about funeral reading placement, if possible

There are some parts of a funeral ceremony where it’s even are even harder to do a reading. Straight after the words of farewell can be the most emotional moment of the funeral, for example, so reading a poem there can be very difficult if you are grieving. 

Let your celebrant know if you are nervous and what would help you. Often, I find that readers would like to say their piece early in the funeral so that they are not distracted by their nerves through the rest of the ceremony. It’s all possible – if you let your celebrant know.

If you are not involved with the funeral arrangements and you only meet the celebrant on the day, make sure you introduce yourself (if it’s me, I’ll always come and find you) and ask whereabouts your reading will be in the funeral ceremony and what your cue will be. It will normally be fairly obvious, but being clear about it can really help with the nerves.

3. Practise your funeral reading until you know it well

Get to know what you’ll be reading. You don’t have to memorise it, but you do need to be very familiar with it, so that the words are comfortable in your mouth. Read it out loud at least 15 times. You don’t have to have an audience, if you don’t want to – read it to the wall, to the mirror, in the bath or to your cat – but do read it out loud.

If you are reading a tribute, eulogy or other long reading, there is the question of stamina too. You might be reading for several minutes and this could take some getting used to. It can be easy to lose momentum after the first few paragraphs, but you don’t want to lose the impact of the second half. Just like going to the gym to work your muscles, rehearsing your reading several times will give you the strength to keep packing a punch until your final sentence. 

Not only will rehearsing your funeral reading out loud be helpful to get comfortable with the words, but practising like this will also help you to notice the parts that feel most emotionally gnarly. This will be useful for on the day, when you’ll know exactly where in the script to slow down, take a breath and regather yourself.

4. Follow the phrases, not the lines

If you’re reading a poem, follow the phrases, not necessarily the lines – they’ll feel so much more natural that way. For example, most of the well-known funeral poem ‘Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep’ by (possibly) Mary Elizabeth Frye can be read line by line, but this beautiful phrase about halfway breaks the mould:

 ‘When you awaken in the morning’s hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.’

It would be quite jarring to stop after ‘rush’ and start with ‘of’ like it’s a new sentence, so try to see past the line breaks and find the meaning and sense in the phrases. When you read it like this, it makes so much more sense.

If you’re not quite sure how a poem should sound, it’s worth looking it up on YouTube and seeing how different people have read it for inspiration. And I say inspiration here on purpose – it’s not instruction!

5. Don’t ‘wing it’ with a tribute (or, at the very least, know how you’ll end)

I meet many people who say that they want to speak off the cuff when they are giving a tribute at a funeral. 

Please don’t do this!

Even if you are a very experienced public speaker, reading a funeral tribute is a whole different ball game from giving an after-dinner speech or making a presentation at work, especially if you are a close friend or relative. 

You might be fine of course, but I have seen it go very badly wrong for several people, who ended up going round and round in verbal circles, not knowing how to end, or forgetting to say the thing they most wanted to. 

Also, if the celebrant doesn’t know what you are going to say, you run the risk of that story you wanted to share as the centrepiece to your tribute being told before you stand up to walk to the lectern. And you may find yourself being gently asked to bring your eulogy to a close because the chapel time is running out – neither of these are good experiences!

If you absolutely must improvise your funeral tribute, make notes of three points or stories you want to share, and always have a closing sentence, as that’s the bit that trips many speakers up. And do please share these with the celebrant!

6. Vary your tone and pitch 

When you are getting to know your funeral reading by rehearsing it over and over, you will start to get a feel for its pace and for the parts you want to emphasise. 

You might, for example, want to linger over an important word or phrase that you feel captures your loved one perfectly. Or perhaps you’d like to share a funny anecdote that would benefit from a quicker pace and a raised voice as you relay the tale, slowing down later for a more reflective part.

Don’t be afraid to ‘colour in’ your funeral reading by varying your tone and pitch as fits the words that you are speaking. Record yourself doing your reading, if you like, and notice if there are any parts that need emphasising or the pace changing to make it have more impact. 

Which leads me to…

7. Have a clear, marked-up copy of your funeral reading 

Don’t attempt to read from a phone or from your handwritten first draft that is covered in crossings out and scribbles in the margin – you will find the visual stress distracting in the moment.

Print your funeral reading out in a large, double-spaced font and cover it with ‘stage directions’ to help you. Place a ‘//’ for example where you want to pause. Underline or highlight words you want to linger over for emphasis. Draw squiggles and marks in whatever way makes sense to you that show you to speed up, slow down, or watch out – there’s a tear triggering bit coming up. Keep rehearsing, using these notes to self to help you.

8. Visualise your funeral reading going well

A simple yet powerful thing you can do both to improve your reading on the day and to help to calm your nerves, is visualisation.

In the run-up to the day of the funeral, take a few minutes each day to sit or stand quietly with your eyes closed. Visualise yourself at the funeral, walking up to the lectern, and delivering your tribute, poem or reading clearly and confidently. ‘See’ yourself standing tall, and the grateful expressions on the faces of the other people there. ‘Hear’ those words you’ve been rehearsing coming out in just the way you want them to. ‘Feel’ how good it feels to be doing this for your loved one. 

I promise this will make a huge difference to the way you feel about your funeral reading, both beforehand and on the day.

9. Practice good self-care

Looking after yourself well is important at any time of course, and particularly when you are bereaved. But when you are preparing to read at a funeral, it makes a tangible difference.

If you can, make sure that you sleep well the night before the funeral, or at least rest if you can’t sleep. Keep well hydrated (preferably with water rather than lots of caffeine, which can make nerves worse), and have something light to eat before you set off. 

It’s best to avoid dairy if you can, as it can negatively affect the voice by coating the throat.

10. Warm up on the way

Warming up your face and your voice before your funeral reading can make a big difference to how it sounds (and to how your throat feels afterwards!)

Before you leave the house or in the car on the way to the funeral, it’s worth trying things like neck rolls, lip trilling, pulling big grins, yawning, singing scales and saying tongue twisters. But if you’re in a funeral car with lots of other people, this might not be so easy to do, so you might need to improvise a little!

Here’s a good article with tips and a video of how to warm up your voice ready for your moment at the lectern.

11. Stop and breathe

It’s the moment! The celebrant has introduced your reading and you’re making your way to the front…

Don’t be in a rush. You have time to get to the lectern, arrange your reading, and breathe. Stopping and taking a deep breath just for a second before you start will get your head in the right place. Use the time to remember that visualisation you did and ‘see’ yourself calm and collected.

12. Ground yourself

Another thing that some people find helpful when they’re about to read at a funeral is to mentally ground themselves. 

To do this, take a moment to become aware of the feeling of the floor beneath your feet. Focus on that place, feel ‘rooted’ into the ground, and take a breath, imagining it coming up through your feet. 

This is great to do before you start (yes, there’s still time and nobody is going to think badly of you if you take a couple of seconds to steady yourself before you read), and it’s also a good thing to do when you start to feel the emotions overtaking you. Imagine them flowing down into the ground through your feet, take another breath, and carry on…

Have you exhaled? Great! Let’s begin.

13. Slow down and enunciate each word

Nerves make people’s brains work faster, and that means they speak faster too. Slow down! Speak much slower than your instinct tells you. Your rehearsals will help with this, as will your annotated funeral reading. 

There’s no point in delivering a beautiful reading, poem or tribute if you do it so fast that people can’t hear it or absorb it properly. Take breaths between sentences, pause and focus on delivering each word without rushing or tripping over it.

14. Use the microphone but still speak clearly

On that note, the chances are that you will have a microphone built into the lectern if you are at a crematorium or a private chapel. These help a lot, but you will still need to slow down and speak clearly, as mentioned in my last point. 

If you don’t have a microphone, remember that your words need to be heard even at the back of the room. You don’t need to shout, but you will need to project as much as you can. This is especially important if you have anyone who is hard of hearing at the funeral. 

Fortunately, this is something else that can be worked on if you practice in advance! If you haven’t had the chance to, ask your celebrant or a loved one to give you signals about your volume if necessary!

15. Don’t worry about crying

Many people worry that they won’t be able to do a funeral reading without crying. Indeed, it puts a lot of people off even trying.

Please try not to worry about this. You’re at a funeral of a loved one after all, and if you can’t cry there then I don’t know where you can cry! Nobody should judge you for being emotional. Here are some things you can do if it feels too much:

  • Remember that your celebrant will be on hand to take over if needed – having that safety net helps straightaway.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop for a moment. Go back to your visualisation of you delivering the funeral reading calmly, take another breath, focus on the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, regroup and carry on.
  • You could ask a loved one to come up to the lectern with you. Having someone there, perhaps with their hand on your back, really can help.
  • Make sure you have a couple of tissues on hand before you begin.
  • Take a small bottle of water up with you. Sometimes, pausing to have a quick sip will help you to gather yourself – and it will cure a nervous dry mouth too.
  • Remember that it’s ok to cry. Not only is it ok for you to cry, but you might just give ‘permission’ for other people to let go as well. Whilst in Britain we tend to be very ‘stiff upper lip’ about these things, often crying is cathartic and good for us. There is absolutely no shame in it whatsoever.
  • Remember that your celebrant can take over at any point (yes, I know I’ve said this already but it’s worth hammering home!)

16. Rescue Remedy

If you haven’t discovered it already, ‘Rescue Remedy’ is a Bach flower remedy which is designed to be sprayed or dropped on the tongue in anxious or nerve-inducing situations. Honestly, this stuff is like magic! I don’t know whether it’s the flower extracts or just the way that using it is like a pattern interrupt to the nervous thought spiral, but it really helps to calm you down. I recommend searching some out in your local chemist so you can have a quick spray before you deliver your funeral reading or face any other similarly difficult situation!

Good luck! Remember to breathe! You can do this! 

Let me know how it goes.

Reading at a funeral – 16 tips to help you get through ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Kzenon on Deposit Photos