Funeral Mass

PK, Page

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Nov-16-2020
  • Last revised: Nov-16-2020


"Funeral Mass" is a 23- line poem consisting of 11 couplets and one single line (line 8) - all in free verse, unrhymed. It describes a church funeral service for an infant with both parents and family/friends in supportive attendance. Its primary focus is the contrast between the parents' reactions to this death and the behavior of the officiating priests representatives of a Christian denomination, most likely the Roman Catholic Church, since the priests are wearing stoles "embroidered by nuns".

P. K. Page was a Canadian poet and painter who had an intense interest in the mundane aspects of life which, through her microscopic observation and terse but rich style, converted into lapidary poetic gems.


"Funeral Mass," a highly visually oriented poem, is a marvelously succinct triptych of two quite different reactions to an infant's death at a funeral mass. It paints, on a large, but muted canvas, an evident and striking contrast between the family's raw emotion and the rigid, rote behavior - devoid of sentiment - that the reader witnesses in the priests officiating in the service. This painterly poem is deftly effected by verbal description, figures of speech and careful choice of diction, almost telegraphic at times.

In a process that is the opposite of ekphrasis, Page uses words and syntax as oils to create tableaux of the two groups: family and friends versus priests. The first portrait is of the family and is a vivid, three dimensional, Rubenesque canvas. It is, unlike the institutional, corporate portrait of The Church and its officiants, a highly personal portrait. Its colors and hues are in metaphors and diction. The emotions of the grieving family are subtly limned, painting a scene in which the parents are appropriately distraught: the father is sweating while weeping and the mother has to lean on the arms of those accompanying her. The coffin jumps into view when it is described as a Kleenex box, with which it shares the same shape and, for this baby, size, as well as its corresponding weight. One can see the sweating father carrying a Kleenex coffin. A few lines later a jewel box replaces the Kleenex metaphor. Again, we have an equally visual metaphor but this time one conveying the additional semantic connotation of great worth, as opposed to the trivial contents of a Kleenex box. It is a measure of Page's skill in her risky switch from the Kleenex box metaphor to the jewel box metaphor that the successful metamorphosis retains the fragility and weightlessness of the Kleenex box while its contents gains in value, from Kleenex to a precious gem. The final aspect of this Rubenesque scene is of course color. Page does not disappoint: we encounter black on line 1, white and gold on line 5 and pale gristle on page 13.

The second portraited group, the priests and their service, on the other hand, is depicted as a strictly flat, two dimensional scene without perspective. A mechanical blueprint with no depth of detail, or depiction of emotion. It is a black and white tableau vivant of disinterest and remove, an easily forgotten vignette in which we witness a business-like, almost perfunctory adherence to a cookie-cutter, albeit "intricate" ritual. Nothing could delineate the starkness of the two theaters of action during this mass better than this pictorial representation of the two groups, their clothing, their speech and their actions. As we gaze upon this second, sterile group portrait, we cannot but help recall the almost lighter-than-air Kleenex/jewel box coffin when we read the gravity of formal ceremony and the heaviness of the priests' "elaborate clothes" - the antithesis of Kleenex. Page's marriage of weight to emotions here is wonderfully expressed in imagistic poetry.

Diction is another pigment on Page's palette. Compare "jewel box" (family) with "cope" (religion); "lean" (family) versus "impervious" (religion); and "weep" (family) versus "speak Latin" (religion), "blackest suit (family) versus " ... their elaborate clothes//their miters, copes/their stoles embroidered by nuns" (religion).

Page's final brush is structure, the layout of her poetic canvas. In "Funeral Mass" the poet paints a bracketing triptych of a poem, one carefully demarcating three vertical panels. Page encloses the stiff formality of The Church in the middle panel (lines 14 - 21) between the uppermost panel (lines 1 - 13) and the bottom panel (line 22), both graphic depictions of what it is to be a sentient, grieving human family. The bottom panel is the final couplet of the poem:

       this tiny homunculus
       this tiny seed

This poem would serve as an interesting contrast with "Home Burial" by Robert Frost, in this collection, and "Sudden Infant Death" in Wishbone Dance by Gordon Downie, and Dylan Thomas's "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," also in this collection.

Primary Source

Planet Earth : poems selected and new


Porcupine's Quill

Place Published

Erin, Ontario, Canada




Ormsby, Eric

Page Count