Death poem

The death poem is a genre of poetry that developed in the literary traditions of East Asian cultures—most prominently in Japan as well as certain periods of Chinese history and Joseon Korea. They tend to offer a reflection on death—both in general and concerning the imminent death of the author—that is often coupled with a meaningful observation on life. The practice of writing a death poem has its origins in Zen Buddhism. It is a concept or worldview derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically that the material world is transient and impermanent (無常 mujō), that attachment to it causes suffering ( ku), and ultimately all reality is an emptiness or absence of self-nature ( ). These poems became associated with the literate, spiritual, and ruling segments of society, as they were customarily composed by a poet, warrior, nobleman, or Buddhist monk.

The writing of a poem at the time of one's death and reflecting on the nature of death in an impermanent, transitory world is unique to East Asian culture. It has close ties with Buddhism, and particularly the mystical Zen Buddhism (of Japan), Chan Buddhism (of China) and Seon Buddhism (of Korea). From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death because awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. A death poem exemplifies both the "eternal loneliness" that is found at the heart of Zen and the search for a new viewpoint, a new way of looking at life and things generally, or a version of enlightenment (satori in Japanese; wu in Chinese). According to comparative religion scholar Julia Ching, Japanese Buddhism "is so closely associated with the memory of the dead and the ancestral cult that the family shrines dedicated to the ancestors, and still occupying a place of honor in homes, are popularly called the Butsudan, literally 'the Buddhist altars'. It has been the custom in modern Japan to have Shinto weddings, but to turn to Buddhism in times of bereavement and for funeral services".[1]

The writing of a death poem was limited to the society's literate class, ruling class, samurai, and monks. It was introduced to Western audiences during World War II when Japanese soldiers, emboldened by their culture's samurai legacy, would write poems before suicidal missions or battles.[2]

Death poem by Kuroki Hiroshi
The jisei, or death poem, of Kuroki Hiroshi, a Japanese sailor who died in a Kaiten suicide torpedo accident on 7 September 1944. It reads: "This brave man, so filled with love for his country that he finds it difficult to die, is calling out to his friends and about to die".

Japanese death poems

Chidorigafuchi sakura
Cherry blossoms at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Style and technique

The poem's structure can be in one of many forms, including the two traditional forms in Japanese literature: kanshi or waka.[a] Sometimes they are written in the three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku form, although the most common type of death poem (called a jisei 辞世) is in the waka form called the tanka (also called a jisei-ei 辞世詠) which consists of five lines totaling 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7)—a form that constitutes over half of surviving death poems.(Ogiu, 317-318).

Poetry has long been a core part of Japanese tradition. Death poems are typically graceful, natural, and emotionally neutral, in accordance with the teachings of Buddhism and Shinto. Excepting the earliest works of this tradition, it has been considered inappropriate to mention death explicitly; rather, metaphorical references such as sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossom suggest the transience of life.

It was an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to compose a jisei on their deathbed. One of earliest records was recited by Prince Ōtsu, executed in 686. For examples of death poems, see the articles on the famous haiku poet Bashō, the Japanese Buddhist monk Ryōkan, Ōta Dōkan (builder of Edo Castle), the monk Gesshū Sōko, and the Japanese woodblock master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The custom has continued into modern Japan. Some people left their death poems in multiple forms. Prince Ōtsu made both waka and kanshi, Sen no Rikyū made both kanshi and kyōka.

On March 17, 1945, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander-in chief during the Battle of Iwo Jima, sent a final letter to Imperial Headquarters. In the message, General Kuribayashi apologized for failing to successfully defend Iwo Jima against the overwhelming forces of the United States military. At the same time, however, he expressed great pride in the heroism of his men, who, starving and thirsty, had been reduced to fighting with rifle butts and fists. He closed the message with three traditional death poems in waka form.

国の為 重き努を 果し得で 矢弾尽き果て 散るぞ悲しき
仇討たで 野辺には朽ちじ 吾は又 七度生れて 矛を執らむぞ
醜草の 島に蔓る 其の時の 皇国の行手 一途に思ふ

Kuni no tame / omoki tsutome o / hatashi ede / yadama tsukihate / chiruzo kanashiki
Ada utade / nobe niwa kuchiji / warewa mata / shichido umarete / hoko o toranzo
Shikokusa no / shima ni habikoru / sono toki no / Mikuni no yukute / ichizu ni omou

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be [the future of] the Imperial Land.[3]

In 1970, writer Yukio Mishima and his disciple Masakatsu Morita composed death poems before their attempted coup at the Ichigaya garrison in Tokyo, where they committed the ritual suicide of Seppuku.[4]

A small night storm blows
Saying 'falling is the essence of a flower'
Preceding those who hesitate

— Yukio Mishima[5]

Although he did not compose any formal death poem on his deathbed, the last poem written by the great poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) recorded by his disciple Takarai Kikaku during his final illness is generally accepted as his poem of farewell:


Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno o

Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields

— Matsuo Bashō[6]

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, some Japanese poets have employed levity or irony in their final compositions. The Zen monk, Tokō (杜口; 1710–1795, aged 85), commented on the pretentiousness of some jisei in his own death poem:


Jisei to wa
sunawachi mayoi
tada shinan

Death poems
are mere delusion —
death is death.[7]:78

This poem by Moriya Sen'an (d. 1838) showed an expectation of an entertaining afterlife:


Ware shinaba
sakaya no kame no
shita ni ikeyo
moshi ya shizuku no
mori ya sen nan

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak.[7]:81

The final line, "hopefully the cask will leak" (mori ya sen nan), is a play on the poet's name, Moriya Sen'an.

Written over a large calligraphic character 死 shi, meaning Death, the Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴; 1685-1768) wrote as his jisei:

Wakaishu ya
shinu ga iya nara
ima shiniyare
hito-tabi shineba
mō shinanu zo ya

Oh young folk —
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once
you won't die again.[7]:6

Korean death poems

Besides Korean Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars called seonbis sometimes wrote death poems (절명시). However, better-known examples are those written or recited by famous historical figures facing death when they were executed for loyalty to their former king or due to insidious plot. They are therefore impromptu verses, often declaring their loyalty or steadfastness. The following are some examples that are still learned by school children in Korea as models of loyalty. These examples are written in Korean sijo (three lines of 3-4-3-4 or its variation) or in Hanja five-syllable format (5-5-5-5 for a total of 20 syllables) of ancient Chinese poetry (五言詩).

Yi Gae

Yi Gae (이개·1417–1456) was one of "six martyred ministers" who were executed for conspiring to assassinate King Sejo, who usurped the throne from his nephew Danjong. Sejo offered to pardon six ministers including Yi Gae and Seong Sam-mun if they would repent their crime and accept his legitimacy, but Yi Gae and all others refused. He recited the following poem in his cell before execution on June 8, 1456. In this sijo, Lord (임) actually should read someone beloved or cherished, meaning King Danjong in this instance.[8]

방안에 혔는 촛불 눌과 이별하엿관대
겉으로 눈물지고 속타는 줄 모르는다.
우리도 천리에 임 이별하고 속타는 듯하여라.

Oh, candlelight shining the room, with whom did you part?
You shed tears without and burn within, yet no one notices.
We part with our Lord on a long journey and burn like thee.

Seong Sam-mun

Like Yi Gae, Seong Sam-mun (성삼문·1418–1456) was one of "six martyred ministers," and was the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Sejo. He refused the offer of pardon and denied Sejo's legitimacy. He recited the following sijo in prison and the second one (five-syllable poem) on his way to the place of execution, where his limbs were tied to oxen and torn apart.[9]

이 몸이 죽어 가서 무어시 될고 하니,
봉래산(蓬萊山) 제일봉(第一峯)에 낙락장송(落落長松) 되야 이셔,
백설(白雪)이 만건곤(滿乾坤)할 제 독야청청(獨也靑靑) 하리라.

What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world.

擊鼓催人命 (격고최인명) -둥둥 북소리는 내 생명을 재촉하고,
回頭日欲斜 (회두일욕사) -머리를 돌여 보니 해는 서산으로 넘어 가려고 하는구나
黃泉無客店 (황천무객점) -황천으로 가는 길에는 주막조차 없다는데,
今夜宿誰家 (금야숙수가) -오늘밤은 뉘 집에서 잠을 자고 갈거나

As the sound of drum calls for my life,
I turn my head where sun is about to set.
There is no inn on the way to underworld.
At whose house shall I sleep tonight?

Jo Gwang-jo

Jo Gwang-jo (조광조·1482–1519) was a neo-Confucian reformer who was framed by the conservative faction opposing his reforms in the Third Literati Purge of 1519. His political enemies slandered Jo to be disloyal by writing "Jo will become the king" (주초위왕, 走肖爲王) with honey on leaves so that caterpillars left behind the same phrase as if in supernatural manifestation. King Jungjong ordered his death by sending poison and abandoned Jo's reform measures. Jo, who had believed to the end that Jungjong would see his errors, wrote the following before drinking poison on December 20, 1519.[10] Repetition of similar looking words is used to emphasize strong conviction in this five-syllable poem.

愛君如愛父 (애군여애부) 임금 사랑하기를 아버지 사랑하듯 하였고
憂國如憂家 (우국여우가) 나라 걱정하기를 집안 근심처럼 하였다
白日臨下土 (백일임하토) 밝은 해 아래 세상을 굽어보사
昭昭照丹衷 (소소조단충) 내 단심과 충정 밝디 밝게 비춰주소서

Loved my sovereign as own father
Worried over country as own house
The bright sun looking down upon earth
Shines ever so brightly on my red heart.

Jeong Mong-ju

Jeong Mong-ju (정몽주·1337–1392), considered "father" of Korean neo-Confucianism, was a high minister of Goryeo dynasty when Yi Seong-gye overthrew Goryeo and established Joseon dynasty. He answered with the following sijo to the future Taejong of Joseon when the latter demanded his support for the new dynasty with a poem of his own. Just as he suspected, he was assassinated the same night on April 4, 1392.

이몸이 죽고 죽어 일백 번 고쳐 죽어
백골이 진토되어 넋이라도 있고 없고
임 향한 일편 단심이야 가실 줄이 있으랴.

Should this body die and die again a hundred times over,
White bones turning to dust, with or without trace of soul,
My steadfast heart toward Lord, could it ever fade away?

See also


  1. ^ "Kanshi" is a Chinese-style poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet; while "waka", which literally means "Japanese poem", is written in lines alternating between 5 and 7 syllables


  1. ^ Julia Ching, "Buddhism: A Foreign Religion in China. Chinese Perspectives", in Hans Küng and Julia Ching (editors), Christianity and Chinese Religions (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 219.
  2. ^ Mayumi Ito, Japanese Tokko Soldiers and Their Jisei
  3. ^ translations from Kakehashi, Kumiko (2007). So sad to fall in battle : an account of war (Presidio Press hardcover ed., 1st ed.). New York: Presidio Press/Ballantine Books. p. xxiii. ISBN 978-0-89141-903-7.. Though the book translates these lines as one poem, they in fact are three poems in waka form as shown in this article.
  4. ^ Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, p.62
  5. ^ Jaitra. "The poetry of death". Retrieved 23 January 2016.
  6. ^ Takarai, Kikaku (Autumn 2006). "Account of Our Master Basho's Last Days, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in Springtime in Edo". Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry. 4 (3). Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Hoffmann, Yoel (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 978-0804831796.
  8. ^ Korean Sijo Literature Association
  9. ^ Kim Cheon-tak, Cheong-gu-yeong-un, 1728
  10. ^ Annals of Joseon Dynasty, December 16, 1519

Further reading

  • Blackman, Sushila (1997). Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die: Death Stories of Tibetan, Hindu & Zen Masters. Weatherhill, Inc.: USA, New York, New York. ISBN 0-8348-0391-7
  • Hoffmann, Yoel (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Charles E. Tuttle Company: USA, Rutland, Vermont. ISBN 0-8048-1505-4

External links

Death messenger

Death messengers, in former times, were those who were dispatched to spread the news that an inhabitant of their city or village had died. They were to wear unadorned black and go door to door with the message, "You are asked to attend the funeral of the departed __________ at (time, date, and place)." This was all they were allowed to say, and were to move on to the next house immediately after uttering the announcement. This tradition persisted in some areas to as late as the mid-19th century.

Death rattle

Terminal respiratory secretions (or simply terminal secretions), known colloquially as a death rattle, are sounds often produced by someone who is near death as a result of fluids such as saliva and bronchial secretions accumulating in the throat and upper chest. Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow and may have increased production of bronchial secretions, resulting in such an accumulation. Usually, two or three days earlier, the symptoms of approaching death can be observed as saliva accumulates in the throat, making it very difficult to take even a spoonful of water. Related symptoms can include shortness of breath and rapid chest movement. While death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, such as brain injuries.It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death, or alternatively, that they are gargling.

Dignified death

Dignified death is a somewhat elusive concept often related to suicide. One factor that has been cited as a core component of dignified death is maintaining a sense of control. Another view is that a truly dignified death is an extension of a dignified life. There is some concern that assisted suicide does not guarantee a dignified death, since some patients may experience complications such as nausea and vomiting. There is some concern that age discrimination denies the elderly a dignified death.


Eiko is a feminine Japanese given name. Eikō, also spelled Eikou or Eikoh, is a masculine Japanese given name. The meanings of these names depend on the kanji used to write them.

Gesshū Sōko

Gesshū Sōko (1618–1696) was a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher and a member of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. He studied under teachers of the lesser known, and more strictly monastic, Ōbaku School of Zen and contributed to a reformation of Sōtō monastic codes. As a result, he is sometimes given the title "The Revitalizer".He is known for his calligraphy as well as his poetry, including his death poem:

Inhale, exhale

Forward, back

Living, dying:

Arrows, let flown each to each

Meet midway and slice

The void in aimless flight --

Thus I return to the source.

Gesshū Sōko passed Dharma transmission to Zen Master Manzan Dōhaku who went on to restore the strong master-disciple bond in Sōtō Zen.

Hjalmar and Ingeborg

Hjalmar (Swedish pronunciation: [²jalːmar]) and Ingeborg (Swedish: [²ɪŋːɛbɔrj]) were a legendary Swedish duo. The male protagonist Hjalmar and his duel for Ingeborg figures in the Hervarar saga and in Orvar-Odd's saga, as well as in Gesta Danorum, Lay of Hyndla and a number of Faroese ballads. Hjalmar never lost a battle until meeting a berserker wielding the cursed sword Tyrfing.

Itakura Shigemasa

Itakura Shigemasa (板倉 重昌, 1588 – February 14, 1638) was a Japanese daimyō of the early Edo period. The lord of Fukōzu han in Mikawa Province, he was a personal aide to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Son of the Kyoto Shoshidai Itakura Katsushige, and younger brother of Itakura Shigemune (successor to Katsushige as Shoshidai).

Born in Mikawa, he was styled Naizen no Kami (内膳正), and together with Matsudaira Masatsuna and Akimoto Yasutomo, he served as Tokugawa Ieyasu's personal aide (kinju shuttōnin 近習出頭人). In the Osaka Winter Campaign, he acted as negotiator with the Toyotomi.

In the 11th month of Kan'ei 14 (1637), he was appointed chief commander of the expeditionary force that was sent to put down the Shimabara Rebellion. Shigemasa failed to take Hara Castle, the rebels' headquarters, despite his use of ninja, tunnelling methods, and catapults. As a result, the shōgun Iemitsu grew impatient with him, and sent Matsudaira Nobutsuna as his replacement. In an effort to regain his credibility, Shigemasa led a sudden assault on the castle, but in the process, was shot dead by an arrow.

Shigemasa's death poem was:

Aratama no/toshi no hajime ni/saku hana no/na nominokoraba/saki ga ketoshireTranslated,

In a hail of bullets/at the start of the year/only the name/of blooming flowers/remains for the future

Kosaburo Eto

Kosaburo Eto (江藤 小三郎, Etō Kosaburō, 20 April 1946 – 11 February 1969) was a Japanese nationalist, thinker, social activist, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force official, and member of a leading Japanese political family. He is best known for committing suicide through self-immolation as a nationalist protest in front of the Japanese Houses of Parliament.

Kusunoki Masatsura

Kusunoki Masatsura (楠木 正行, 1326 – February 4, 1348), along with his father Masashige and brother Masanori, was a supporter of the Southern Imperial Court during Japan's Nanbokucho Wars.Masatsura was one of the primary military leaders who revived the Southern Court in the 1340s. The Court had had little to no resources for three years; the strategy was too focused on defending their base at Yoshino, and not on gaining allies, land, or income. The Kusunoki family, and Masatsura in particular, fought to gain power and support for the Emperor. In 1347, Masatsura led an attack on bakufu (shogunate) sympathizers in Kii Province and ended up attracting supporters from Kii, as well as Izumi and Settsu Provinces. When the Shōgun's Northern Court sent Hosokawa Akiuji to stop him, Masatsura met Hosokawa and defeated him at Sakainoura. After several more campaigns against the bakufu, Masatsura was killed in the Battle of Shijō Nawate, in February 1348 at the age of 22.Also because of his loyalty Emperor Go-Daigo reward him one most beautiful woman in palace called Ben-Naishi as his wife.

Before he died, he composed a death poem on the Nyoirin-ji temple door in Yoshino, the location of Go-Daigo's tomb:





名をぞとどむるkaeraji to

kanete omoeba


nakikazu ni iru

na wo zotodomuruI could not return, I presume

So I will keep my name

Among those who are dead with bows.

Last words

Last words or final words are a person's final articulated words, stated prior to death or as death approaches. Last words may not necessarily be written down or accurately recorded, and they may not be quoted accurately for a variety of reasons.

Lazarus sign

The Lazarus sign or Lazarus reflex is a reflex movement in brain-dead or brainstem failure patients, which causes them to briefly raise their arms and drop them crossed on their chests (in a position similar to some Egyptian mummies). The phenomenon is named after the Biblical figure Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead in the Gospel of John.


Megadeath (or megacorpse) is one million human deaths, usually caused by a nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare.


An obituary (obit for short) is a news article that reports the recent death of a person, typically along with an account of the person's life and information about the upcoming funeral. In large cities and larger newspapers, obituaries are written only for people considered significant. In local newspapers, an obituary may be published for any local resident upon death. A necrology is a register or list of records of the deaths of people related to a particular organization, group or field, which may only contain the sparsest details, or small obituaries. Historical necrologies can be important sources of information.

Two types of paid advertisements are related to obituaries. One, known as a death notice, omits most biographical details and may be a legally required public notice under some circumstances. The other type, a paid memorial advertisement, is usually written by family members or friends, perhaps with assistance from a funeral home. Both types of paid advertisements are usually run as classified advertisements.

Pallor mortis

Pallor mortis (Latin: pallor "paleness", mortis "of death"), the first stage of death, is an after-death paleness that occurs in those with light/white skin.

Rigor mortis

Rigor mortis (Latin: rigor "stiffness", mortis "of death"), or postmortem rigidity, is the third stage of death. It is one of the recognizable signs of death, characterized by stiffening of the limbs of the corpse caused by chemical changes in the muscles postmortem. In humans, rigor mortis can occur as soon as four hours after death.

Sylvia's Death

"Sylvia’s Death" is a poem written by American poet Anne Sexton (1928–1974). Sexton published "Sylvia's Death" in her Pulitzer Prize winning 1966 collection of poems Live or Die. The poem is highly confessional in tone, focusing on the suicide of friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath in 1963, and Sexton’s own yearning for death. Due to the fact Sexton wrote the poem only days after Plath’s passing, "Sylvia’s Death" is often seen as an elegy for Plath. The poem is also thought to have underlying themes of female suppression and suffering due to the confines of domesticity.

Yi Gae

Yi Gae (1417–1456) was a scholar-official of the Joseon Dynasty and one of the six martyred ministers. He was born to a yangban family of the Hansan Yi lineage, and was the great-grandson of Goryeo period philosopher Yi Saek.

Yi passed the higher examination in 1436, and he was appointed to the Hall of Worthies by Sejong in 1441. After Munjong rose to the throne in 1450, he was appointed to provide personal instruction in the classics to the prince, who became the young King Danjong in 1453.

In 1455, Danjong was overthrown by Sejo. Yi joined a conspiracy of other high officials to overthrow Sejo and return Danjong to the throne; but just before the plot would have unfolded, it was betrayed to the king by Kim Jil. Arrested, he refused to repent under torture and was executed.

In medicine
After death

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