The HyperTexts

Mary Elizabeth Frye

compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch

"Do not stand at my grave and weep" is a consoling Holocaust poem and elegy with an interesting genesis, as it was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004), a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education and had quite possibly never written poetry before, and certainly none of note. When the poem was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 poll, despite not being one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The version below was published by The Times and The Sunday Times in Frye's obituaries on November 5, 2004:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

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 am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

An earlier version of the poem, believed to be the original version, or closer to it, appears at the bottom of this page. The poem is sometimes referred to as "I Am" because of the repetition of the phrase within the poem, particularly the original version.

A 1996, a Bookworm poll resulted in 30,000 "write in" votes for the un-nominated poem, making it Great Britain's favorite poem from out of blue nothing. The poem is often read at funerals and other memorial services, including those for the Challenger space shuttle, the Lockerbie bombing and the 9-11 terror attack on New York's twin towers.

The poet was born Mary Elizabeth Clark in Dayton, Ohio on November 13, 1905. She was orphaned at age three and moved to Baltimore when she was twelve. Although she had had no formal education, she was an avid reader and possessed a remarkable memory. She married Claud Frye in 1927, becoming Mary Elizabeth Frye. He ran a clothing business while she kept house and grew and sold flowers. 

Frye wrote the poem in 1932. As far as we know, she had never written any poetry before, but the plight of a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with her at the time, inspired her. Her young houseguest had been deeply concerned about her mother, who was too old and crippled and ill to leave Germany, but she was unable to go to her mother's aid because of the rabid anti-Semitism that was erupting into what later became known as the Holocaust. When she received news that her mother had died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye in despair that she had never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Frye found herself composing the poem on a ripped-off section of a brown paper shopping bag. She said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death. When she showed the poem to her young charge, she prized it greatly, saying that she would keep it forever.

Frye circulated the poem privately. Because she never published or copyrighted it, there is no definitive version. Frye continued to write, often to support animal charities, but none of her subsequent work matched the impact of her first piece. It was her first poem, written in a burst of compassion, that endured and became famous. The poem was first introduced to many Britons when it was read by the father of a young soldier, Stephen Jeffrey Cummins, who had been killed by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The soldier's father read the poem on BBC radio in 1995 in remembrance of his son, after having found it in an envelope addressed "To all my loved ones" in his son's personal effects.

Mary Frye died on September 15, 2004, at age 98. In its obituary The Times wrote: "The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss. It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status."

There is an illustrated book of the poem with ink drawings for each line.

To coincide with National Poetry Day 1996, the British favorite book program, the BBC's Bookworm, conducted a poll to discover the nation's favorite poems and "Do not stand at my grave and weep" was one of the most favored poems. As Geoff Stephens explained, "In 1996, BBC TV's Bookworm ran a competition to discover the nation's favorite poems, which were published in The Nation's Favourite Poems (BBC Worldwide Books, 1996). Auberon Waugh called it 'the best popular anthology ever printed in Britain.' In the book's preface, 'almost apologetically,' editor Gryff Rees-Jones states: 'the unexpected poetry success of the year from Bookworm's point of view … provoked an extraordinary response … the requests started coming in almost immediately and over the following weeks the demand rose to a total of some thirty thousand … its origins remain a mystery. In some respects it became the nation's favourite poem by proxy and, despite it being outside the competition, we have decide to include it here, in prime, first past the post, poll position.'"

The version immediately below was taken from page 62 of a memorial service document for the United Spanish War Veterans service held at Portland USA, on 11 September 1938 (the '40th Encampment') published by the US Congress in early 1939. The text is:

Do not stand at my grave and weep, 
I am not there—I do not sleep. 
I am the thousand winds that blow, 
I am the diamond glints in snow, 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain, 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
As you awake with morning's hush 
I am the swift-up-flinging rush 
Of quiet birds in circling flight. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry, 
I am not there—I did not die.

The text below has been said to be the original version of the poem. While it is speculative to suggest that a poem "came from God," the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, is believed to mean something like "I am" or "I am that I am" ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am in a thousand winds that blow
I am the softly falling snow
I am the gentle showers of rain
I am the fields of ripening grain
I am in the morning hush
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight
I am the starshine of the night
I am in the flowers that bloom
I am in a quiet room
I am the birds that sing
I am in each lovely thing
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there I do not die

Frye never copyrighted the poem, which leaves it in the public domain. Her explanation: "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." Of course the contraction "I'm" is yet another "I am."

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