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Autumn Rain offers consolation

Thanks to the internet, what was once a little-known poem has consoled countless mourners around the English-speaking world. Unpublished when it was first written in 1932, it touched the hearts of many people. It was originally circulated among a small group of friends, who showed it to others, and it has snowballed ever since.

In recent years it has gained wide distribution by email. Sadly, the author received little publicity during her lifetime. Even today, many websites display the poem above the words "Author unknown."

The South Bank Centre (London) Poetry Library website says: "Written at least 50 years ago, this poem has been attributed at different times to J.T. Wiggins (an English émigré to America), two Americans: Mary E. Fry and Marianne Reinhardt, and more recently to Stephen Cummins, a British soldier killed in Northern Ireland who left a copy for his relatives. Others claim it is a Navajo burial prayer."

Over the years, the original words have been adapted many times. Here is a version recited at a funeral service in Sydney last month:

Autumn Rain

You may stand by my grave and weep.
But I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints upon the snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain and
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am that swift uplifting rush,
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
You may stand by my grave and cry,
But I am not there,
In the soft cool earth I do not lie
For Christ has risen, And so have I.

No-one seems to know exactly the original words of the poem, which Mary Elizabeth Frye, a Baltimore, Maryland, housewife composed in 1932, following the death in Germany of the mother of a friend staying with her in the United States..

Her friend, Margaret Schwarzkopf, was brokenhearted that being so far from home, she was unable to "stand by my mother's grave and shed a tear."

To console her, Mary quickly composed her famous verse, writing it down on a paper bag. She didn't even give it a title. Friends of the Schwarzkopf family later gave printed copies of the poem to their friends, many of whom were so touched by it that they in turn passed it on to others.

Born Mary Elizabeth Clark in Dayton, Ohio, on November 13, 1905, the future Mrs Frye was orphaned when she was three years old. She moved to Baltimore nine years later and died on September 15, 2004, two months before her 99th birthday.

Her famous poem has been recited for 70 years, at funerals and memorial gatherings for disasters involving loss of many lives, such as the Lockerbie bombing in Scotland in 1988 and the 9/11 New York terror attack in 2001. In Britain, after the verse was read on the BBC Bookworm TV program in 1995, more than 30,000 listeners requested copies, and in 1996 a Bookworm poll named it The Nation's Favourite Poem.

"It is likely that the mystery and magical appeal of Mary Frye's verse will continue," says British motivator Alan Chapman.*

"Probably the mystery has contributed to the poem's appeal. It is likely also that the poem will forever touch people, in the way that people are touched and inspired by Max Ehrmann's Desiderata, and by Rudyard Kipling's If...

"Mary Frye's 'Do not stand at my grave' and its timeless appeal provide a wonderful illustration of the power of language, and the power of ideas and concepts to spread far and wide, quite organically.

"Beautiful words transcend all else; they inspire, console and strengthen the human spirit."

* Alan Chapman, who lives in Leicester, England is a speaker, coach and advisor, specialising in the ethical and innovative development of people and organizations. He runs the Businessballs website.

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Story first posted June 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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