Pop, classical, or maybe even a little avant-garde freestyle jazz? What music would you want to be played at your funeral?
Thinking about your own send-off might be something you’d typically put off, like visiting your bank manager or sorting out that bit of sealant around the bath that’s needed doing for ages.
But music is an integral part of celebrating a person’s life — of reflecting on who they really were, what they loved, what mattered to them. It can be a poignant, hankies-at-the-ready tribute, or a way of acknowledging their wonderful foibles. Coming up with your own funeral playlist is also a way of helping your friends and families with difficult decisions at a painful time.
Beyond the top ten
What to choose? Top ten lists of the most popular funeral songs typically throw up the same old tried-and-tested classics. Something traditional (‘Abide with Me’, say), something funny (‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’), something relatively contemporary (perhaps Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’).
Secular Funeral Minister Emma Curtis is sceptical that these choices are being made with the full knowledge that people can choose absolutely any song they want. Or, indeed, have any kind of ceremony they want.
“We have this impression of what a funeral service ‘must’ look like, whether it’s from TV or other ceremonies that we’ve been to,” says Emma. “So sometimes when I talk to families about what they want, the question is met with puzzlement. They didn’t realise they could do whatever they want. Permission — it’s a huge deal for families when they’re planning a funeral.”
It’s your choice
Emma has been developing a Spotify playlist of all the songs that have been requested at ceremonies she’s facilitated over the past two years. It’s a sprawling, varied collection. “It goes to show that once you’re told you can pick the music to suit the person, the memories of that person, their special tunes — people don’t feel the need to stick to the traditional choices,” says Emma.
Given the freedom, the songs people choose often say something about them. “ ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac for example. It might not seem like funeral music, but the man was seriously in to Formula 1 racing,” Emma says.
Wind beneath my wings
Lyrics really do have power within the context of a ceremony. Emma recommends everyone check them carefully before choosing, because the wrong words heard during a moment of otherwise quiet reflection can be painful.
“’Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ is an example. The first verse is brilliant. But the second verse is quite hard. It’s very funny in the context of the movie, but when you’re standing in your friend’s funeral service — oh man, those words are hard,” she says.
Sometimes, the reasons for a choice aren’t what you might expect from the lyrics. Emma cites the example of Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ — a common selection and itself no stranger to all those funeral song top ten lists.
“But I remember it was specifically asked for by a woman’s family because of, erm, wind,” Emma recalls. “The lady had been suffering from wind due to the illness that she had. She had just found it really funny to let rip in public places and see how people would deal with it. She’d decided to embrace it. So that’s what the ceremony opened with. Because her family felt that she’d have found it really funny. They asked me to explain that at the beginning of the ceremony. It helped everyone relax.”
So the job of good funeral celebrant is really to give families the power. To help them understand that ceremonies don’t have to be serious, sombre occasions. Funerals are about engaging with the truth of who people really were.
Music is a way of tapping in to that truth. Of remembering, but not shying away. Of celebrating life as it was lived.
So. What would you choose?