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The mystery of Britain’s most famous funeral poet

Mary Elizabeth Frye wasn't much of a poet—but she put to paper one of the most famous verses on grief still celebrated today. Or did she?

By Rosalind Jana  

Although many major poets are invoked at times of mourning and remembrance, a notable number are also little-known or anonymous—spreading via word of mouth, or disseminated through anthologies and online directories. Image: Prospect Composite

Ohio-born Mary Elizabeth Frye wasn’t much of a poet. In fact, prior to setting pen to brown paper on a shopping bag one day in 1932, in Baltimore, the florist said she had never written a poem.

Despite this, the words she scribbled down—a set of impassioned lines allegedly inspired by a German-Jewish friend who couldn’t travel back to Germany to see her gravely ill mother, due to the rise in antisemitism—soon took on a life of their own. After sharing the poem with several peers, it then circulated anonymously far and wide. Over the decades it was read at…

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