Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch from the Past”


Short prose extracts can be a nice variation to the poems you would typically find in a funeral ceremony. But finding such extracts can be very challenging- you might know a book or a speech you would like to use, but you can’t read the whole text, so how can you still include it in the ceremony?


There are some simple ways round this- framing the text, and adapting the text. An extract asks the audience to take a leap into text, often without much context. The first step is to carefully locate the best place to start and end your extract. Here I’ve provided an extract from Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch from the Past” - a memoir following her own encounters with death. It’s a long essay-style text, so selecting the right section is the first task. I’ve focused on a reflection she shares after the death of her mother, where she captures her heightened senses when she first emerges into the world following her grief.


The second task is to then frame the text. This can be done in the order of service or by the person doing the reading. How you shape the reading is crucial because it is an opportunity to provide some context whilst ideally avoiding a definitive interpretation. I’d suggest a brief precis after the title and lay it out like this (in the script- would stick to the title for the order of service.)

Reading 2:


In this first extract from 'A Sketch from the Past', Woolf describes her experience in the wake of her mother’s death; she gives an example of a visit to Paddington station after seeing her mother at rest.


It was sunset, and the great glass dome at the end of the station was blazing with light. It was glowing yellow and red and the iron girders made a pattern across it. I walked along the platform gazing with rapture at this magnificent blaze of colour, and the train slowly steam into the station. It impressed and exalted me. It was so vast and so fiery red. The contrast of that blaze of magnificent light with the shrouded and curtained rooms at Hyde Park Gate was so intense. Also, it was partly that my mother’s death unveiled and intensified; made me suddenly develop perceptions, as if a burning glass had been laid over what was shaded and dormant… it was surprising- as if something were becoming visible without any effort.


To take another instance- I remember going into Kensington Gardens about that time… I had taken ‘The Golden Treasury’ with me. I opened it and began to read some poem. And instantly and for the first time I understood the poem. It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified that one seems to experience them… as though the poetry was coming true.


As you can see, I’ve edited the extract to skip out digressions or confusing references that obscure the meaning of the text for its use in the ceremony. I’ve also changed the phrasing of the last line to make it clearer for the audience. This is all perfectly acceptable as you are adapting the reading just as you might a hymn or song, ensuring it serves its purpose for yourself and your audience.


As with poetry, if you aren’t sure where to start, think of a writer first and then do some browsing.