Funerals: how to select the right music (and avoid the Top 10 Funeral Hits)

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What music would you like to have played at your funeral? One of your favourite songs? A traditional hymn? Should it be sombre, or rather uplifting and cheerful?

Not many people plan their funeral and in our society it’s not something we usually discuss over a cuppa or a pint of beer. Which is a missed opportunity. Talking about our mortality not only results in interesting and life-affirming conversations (as, for example demonstrated by Death Cafes), it may also be a great source of information for your family and friends. In most occasions, they will be the ones to decide what your final farewell will look like, and what music will be played.

Forget the ‘Top 10 Funeral Hits’

If you have never had the conversation about you funeral, your relatives might find it difficult to select the right music and worst case, they might end up with something that would make you turn into your coffin.

Your next of kin may start by googling ‘funeral music’ and find the ‘Top 10 Funeral Hits’, ending up with a list of pieces they think are right.

They might be wrong.

When it comes to selecting funeral music, there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’ The music chosen should have a connection to the person whose funeral you’re planning. If they did not like Frank Sinatra it would not make sense to play ‘My Way’ and if they never listened to classical music, Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma variations would be an odd choice.

My advice? Forget the ‘Top 10 Funeral Hits’ in the first place.

Start with the person who has died

Start with the person who has died. Investigate what they might have chosen. Think of conversations you have had with them. Did they have favourite music? Were there particular songs or pieces that were relevant to them?

If this does not give any clues it may be helpful to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings. Do you, as a family member or good friend, have any memories of music you enjoyed with the person who has died? Is there a particular piece of music that has become meaningful to you since they passed away? What music reflects how you feel about their death? What music helps you in your grieving process?

You will be surprised how many ideas come to mind, and how different they are from the Top 10 Funeral Hits.

Families also wonder what would be the right amount of music to be played at a funeral service. Here, a similar guideline applies. What is ‘right’ depends on what is fitting for the ceremony you have in mind. Did music play an important part in the deceased’s life? In that case you may think of allowing more time for tracks and songs that were meaningful to them.

Think beyond the systems

Most music at funerals is being played through music systems. Although many of them provide good quality they may not always give the sound you are looking for.

You may want to have live music instead, played by a family member or friend. Some people may find it difficult to perform live at a funeral of someone who was close to them. In that case they may want to record their tribute in advance and have it played though the music system. You may also ask a professional musician to perform a live piece. There are singers who specialise in funeral music

Another option is singing together. This is extremely powerful. It builds community and can be healing. It’s the ultimate way of feeling alive as it’s through our breath, our life-expression, that we form sounds and words. You may choose a traditional hymn, or a secular song which is easy for people to join in. It can be helpful to ask a small choir or a professional singer to take the lead.

And last but not least, there’s a type of music that requires no instruments or scores but may be more powerful than anything else.

Silence.

Powerful and healing

Music can be extremely powerful. It releases emotions which are different than the ones invoked by spoken words. Carefully selected music which is relevant and meaningful to the person who has died and to the people who are left behind will add a deeper layer to the experience of the funeral ceremony and will help in the healing process going forward.

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Bonus track: some thoughts for my own funeral

Maybe this article has given you some ideas for your own funeral music, or for a funeral you are preparing for someone. Writing this article certainly gave me some new inspiration about my funeral music. Here are some thoughts:

1. Lacrimosa (W.A. Mozart)

I would like to have music that expresses the mystery of death and the fear that comes with it. For me, the ultimate requiem song is Lacrimosa Dies Illa: ‘Mourning That Day’. This song is all about grieving, about not knowing what happens to us after we have died. It expresses an awe regarding death. This music goes straight to one’s heart, and it will help people to let it all go: their tears, their grief, and all the other emotions they may have. I envision this being played when my body is being carried in. I admit: it might be a bit theatrical, but I like a bit of drama on that day.

2. Live music by family and friends

I would love to have my talented family members and friends perform a song or a piece they think is right for that moment. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to have my children play something they have chosen for that moment? This thought already makes me cry.

3. Silence

At my funeral, I want people to listen to the silence and to open themselves up for what happens in the silence. No time set. Silence for as long as it feels right.

4. Bird song

I would like to be buried in a wood, with the sounds of twittering birds and rustling leaves around me.

5. A song about beauty and love

I would also like to include a song that helps people in the times to come. A song about love and the beauty of life, for example, ‘Beautiful That Way’; a moving song from the wonderful movie ‘La Vita e Bella’. It’s a song about seeing the beauty and love in life despite everything else.

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