Monday, 16 July 2012

Funeral Music Choices and The Parting Glass

Lots of people spend lots of time choosing music for their own funeral, and very occasionally (one hopes) for someone else, someone close to them. As a funeral celebrant, I spend quite a lot of time discussing musical choices with people, and helping them deliver their choices. My thinking is beginning to clarify a bit on this topic.

Choosing your own funeral music is a kind of turbo-driven desert island discs, I guess. Conventionally, only three or four tracks. People seem often to choose favourites, and sometimes, songs about grief, parting, death and so on. I think it may be less for their actual, imagined and planned funeral, more for a spot of musing about life and death and maybe (cynical old bag-Ed.) feeling sorry for themselves as they realise that their life, too, will end. (It's being so cheerful as keeps 'er goin' - Ed.)

I get the feeling that often, people haven't actually twigged the crucial fact that they won't be there to hear them! The music is for the mourners - bleeding' obvious, but let that sink in a bit, and it might change your choices. Do they really want to hear your splendid dry wit being exercised one last time, as the curtain swings round to "Ring of Fire? Or "Great Balls of Fire?" This in't to do with being censorious or narrow-minded. It's to do with suiting the occasion, the essential tone and rhythm of a particular funeral, the emotional journey it involves.

I think it may be better to leave a few suggestions of music you like that might help your beloveds, and let them decide. It may be something close to your own heart, and/or it may actually be something that suits the occasion - a funeral - and the people there.

I'm more and more in favour of occasion-al music, whether that's Bob Marley or Beethoven's late quartets; music that helps the occasion. And what does help might be surprising. I was concerned when a family chose evergreen Cliff Richard's ancient hit "Summer Holiday" to leave to. I related it to the person's character, and said it was a cheeky, cheerful song which should help us through the doors. Smiles and nods broke out across the room. Everyone seemed to love it. It sure did help them through the doors. Spot on, for an occasion-al track. Wouldn't suit me, suited them.

Here's a borderline one for you - The Parting Glass. It casts a certain tone over "farewell." (Though it doesn't have to be quite so melancholy as the splendid Walin' Jennies make it.) 

But NB: it does talk about all the girls he's known who wished he could have spent just one more day with them. H'mmm. Hostage to fortune. I knew of a case where the widow discovered that her husband had another family - wife, kids, household - at the other end of the country. And "she" was at the funeral. This song would have started a fight, I'd guess...

So maybe we should concentrate on the occasion, and the people there, rather than just riffing through our favourite CDs (or vinyl, or 78s, or cylinders....)


  1. Incredible synchronicity, never heard that song before.

    We are deaf when we get there so the choice should really be for those that loved and listen.

    We can imagine our funeral, and suggest I suppose, but as you say we won't be there.


  2. Agree, broadly, GM. But I do like this modern phenomenon where people choose their funeral music in a laid-back, conversational way. It's an encouraging sign.

    I think there's a wider issue here, which you implicitly raise. Explicitly, now I read you again. A funeral which has a predetermined, individuated purpose which is created with its own plotline, themes, mood, sense of occasion, structure and pace is, I guess, the beau ideal. But when there are disparate wishes, needs, ex-partners etc to take into account it can turn into a bit of a hodge-podge or, as they say these days, a mash-up - unavoidably. And I don't know that there's any way of getting round that...