Thursday, 9 December 2010

Funeral music

In non-religious ceremonies that I've been involved in, if the family have sorted anything before we meet to plan things, it'll be some or all of the music they want. Generally and conventionally three pieces (entrance, reflection time, departure.) Occasionally, there is more music, especially if the dead person was a musician. Very occasionally, there is some live music. Occasionally, after the non-religious ceremony is over, there is a hymn. Very, very occasionally the people sing something which isn't a hymn. No question in my mind that the absence of congregational singing is a pity and a problem - though when I overhear ten elderly people struggling through "Abide With Me" led a minister who can't sing, the issue appears a little less cut and dried...still, it's what matters to them that matters, not my musical preferences.

For burials, there has only very occasionally been recorded music, though on one occasion we had a live singer on a sunlit hillside overlooking the sea, singing a song about living by the sea-side. Unforgettable.

In my opinion, the exit music doesn't work too well for the close family, because they are often out the door after just a few bars - though they will sometimes sit and listen for a bit. Still, it's perhaps nice (usually) for everyone else to leave to a sound other than shuffling footsteps.

There is a point of view that a lot of this personalised music is part of the cult of trivialisation and escapism about death and funerals in our society. Maybe it can be, but in my experience, it often isn't, i.e. the music is something the close family is moved deeply by. Friends too.

Here's a list of some music which I feel has been effective. Not that I necessarily liked it (not the point at all) but that it seemed to work particularly well for the people concerned, in context. And yet it's impossible to be entirely objective. I simply can't include "My Way" even if a family might have found it effective...

1. Days (Kirsty McColl, though it's originally a Kinks song) "Thank you for the days..." What could be more poignant and simpler in a funeral song chosen for a partner ?

2. The Dead Song, by Seasick Steve. ("No-one comin' back from the dead...") Very tough, very strange - we walked in to it and it gave me goose-flesh, it was so basic. For many people it's a truth, and such a hard truth to face, but such a necessary one. So it served as a good start to a non-religious funeral, and threw out a big challenge. It sounded ritualistic; not at all in the same world as Classic FM or Radio Wan....

3. Barber's Adagio. A deep unfolding sort of sadness, simple, dignified, unsentimental.

4. Layla - Eric Clapton. As Charles has noted, sometimes the words don't really fit and yet it doesn't really matter - this song is a howl of pain from beginning to end, including the screeching slide guitar (by Duane Allman) but leaving out the ponderous piano stuff in the second half. Someone who died too soon said that at her funeral there should be "no religion, no tears, and "Layla" by Eric Clapton." We managed the first and last of the three instructions. It was excellent entry music, and seemed to catch the sharpness of the particular grief these people felt about their loss.

5. Beethoven: String Quartet #13 In B Flat, Op. 130 - 4. Alla Danza Tedesca. A son used to play this beautiful and complex, dancing music with his father, and we listened to it (rather than just hearing it) at his father's funeral.

6. The Lark Ascending. Quite well-used, but for a lover of the outdoors (not just someone who enjoyed a walk, a real outdoorist) it was a gentle, consoling piece that for once justified the word "evocative." It said something about someone's life, what he saw as one of the best things in it.

7. Delius: "Irmelin" - Prelude. Little-known piece by Delius. The dead man was a Delius enthusiast and authority. It spoke for him.

8. Haydn: Symphony No. 45, "Farewell": II. Adagio. Seemed a perfectly-balance exit piece, can't exxplain why.

9. Elgar's "Nimrod." Often heard, and still and always a noble, deeply moving piece of music. As the themse swells, so should your feelings.

10. "Peace Piece," by Bill Evans. Great jazz pianist, not swinging, for once (solo.) Gentle, consolatory, draws the ear in, seemed to complement people's private thoughts and prayers.

Please, do add any examples of your own that were particularly effective. I hope you agree it's an important and interesting subject - and we need to be ready for when the family says "he didn't really go much on music - what do you suggest?" Rent-a-Theme won't do. We need to choose something that fits the unique tone and context, something that will sing out for them.


  1. One of the most touching and effective I can remember (perhaps the most) was Lil Star by Kelis. The dead man never heard it - he was dying when it was big, and anyway he didn't listen to that sort of music. But whenever his daughters went to see him in hospital it came on the radio in the car or they overheard it in another ward as they passed, so it became the theme song for this poignant and special time in their lives. They were the loveliest people, and so was their dad. He was a modest man who always put others first, so that first line, 'There is nothing special about me,' was entirely appropriate and we used it in the tribute.

    Not a great piece of music. A quirky choice perhaps. It added to the richness of the occasion, was very special to the family and, because they were so nice, it has a lasting place in my heart. No one else would ever use it in a funeral so it also has the virtue of uniqueness!

  2. Exactly the right piece of music - unique to a man, a place and a time, and did its work for the family. Doesn't matter, does it, whether or not anyone would classify it as a great piece of music. And the music has been changed, for you, by the occasion, just as the occasion was changed by the music. I shall go and listen to it. Thanks Charles.

  3. I've listened to "lil star". I can imagine it playing on a car radio. As Charles describes, and of course as you say G the music - it's not for you - you won't even be there.

    So it becomes a bit like Imaginary Desert Island Discs. Other people might imagine how you might be musically associated. Possibly not what you think, but what your tribe think about you.

    And I think with each funeral the choosing of music is very particular and personal to the ones than are left; not so much the bloke in the box.

    Thinking about this discussion has taken me to a realisation.

    I had, in a kind of way, thought that perhaps "Heroes" by David Bowie would be good because it would include your loved one and stress that it was "just for one day"

    "I . . I will be king and you will be queen just for one day".


    But considering what you are saying perhaps I should never utter that wish.

    They should wheel me in and out to the music they feel is right for me, and hopefully it might help them live ON.

    Living on.


  4. Yesterday we all sang Let it Be. I thought it might be a dirge but it wasn't. And it struck the mood exactly. You just never know.

    We also had a guitarist (bro in law) to play everyone in - and it reminded me of the power of live performance. At one very sad and beautiful funeral a very good guitarist played Mull of Kintyre to the coffin. It's a dreadful song when that weed McCartney does it, but this was a really good arrangement and by jingo it was powerful. (We exited only after listening to the whole of Moving by Secret Garden (yes, she was Scottish). I am very strict with FDs: Stay bloody put til it's played through. Replay it for going out.)

  5. You never know, indeed. How interesting.Thanks Charles.

    And now I have two songs new to me that I must listen to: Moving, and Lil Star.Good tip re FDs - I should be more careful to ask families beforehand how much of the last track they want to stay and listen to.

  6. Arkers, what a good motto - the funeral music should be to help us live on, when it's done the other things it needs to do.

    It seems to me practical to leave some suggestions to accompany one's own funeral, which is not the same thing as saying "I want such-and-such played at my funeral." So to suggest due consideration of Mr Bowie's offering might be very helpful.

    What XP calls (because of her job) "The Long-Suffering One" may be grateful for some suggestions, but may well have other ideas, tracks more meaningful to him/her. So "Balls of Fire" might crack me up (were I there)but might traumatise a grandson, and strike a partner as just silly.