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Choosing Music for a Funeral

When emotions run high, music has a way of saying the things that we cannot. Somehow, we held back the tears as Elton John sang ‘Candle in the wind’ at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’. If you’ve seen the footage of Christina Aguilera eulogising Grammy Award-winning singer, Etta James, with an emotional performance of ‘At Last’, then you’ll know that lyrics can reassure, honour, commemorate, and break our hearts – all at the same time. And then, there was Carrie. And then, there was Jim.

At the private memorial service in Carrie Fisher’s own home, Meryl Streep led a cheerful, bright rendition of Carrie’s favourite song, ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’. There were many tears shed, but one of Carrie’s last wishes was for her family and friends to sing up and celebrate her life with a cheerful performance of her favourite tune.

Jim Henson left instructions, too. For the service in New York, he wanted mourners to wear anything but black as they listened to a medley of his favourite songs, performed, of course, by the team behind his beloved Muppets. Baby Face, You Are My Sunshine – heart-warming, carefree tunes. But in London, at a memorial that was more about family than fans, a traditional church choir led the congregation in a gentle version of All Creatures of Our God and King.

You don’t have to be a celebrity, or to have celebrity friends, to choose something very personal and ‘different’ for your own funeral, or for someone else’s. What you do need to do, is to understand that a Minister or Celebrant may have views on what’s appropriate for a particular setting – it would be unusual to hear Metallica’s Master of Puppets in a country church – but even then, many things are possible. Let’s see how.

Classical music
If you’re making end-of-life plans for yourself, there’s no reason why you can’t choose classical music – even if it’s not something you or your family listen to regularly. Calm and solemn, sedate or reflective, some examples stand out as being ‘appropriate’ for a funeral. Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Pachelbel’s Canon in D; Schubert’s Ave Maria; Elgar’s Nimrod – there is something moving and at the same time calming about all of these well-known pieces. But why not look a little further afield?

Many Hollywood films have theme tunes that are just as soothing or appropriate, when they’re played in an orchestral arrangement. John Barry’s theme to Out of Africa, for example, is touching and yet soothing; Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ from Titanic speaks volumes; and Carl Davis’s operatic Flower Duet is a track that’s grown in popularity recently. It doesn’t have to be an old piece of classical music, to be appropriate for a funeral.

Modern choices
In the ‘top 10s’ of modern music for a funeral, you’ll find some firm favourites now. Robbie Williams ‘Angels’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, and Westlife’s ‘You Raise Me Up’ – these are common choices that seem to capture the moment, beautifully.

But what about Eric Idle’s much-loved, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’? How about The Disturbed’s version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic, ‘Sound of Silence’? Is something irreligious appropriate for a service? It might be. Of course, traditional hymns have a special place for many families. But most Ministers and Celebrants will encourage you to choose the music that has meaning for you and your family, first. They’ll also help you to find an arrangement that works for the setting.

Instrumental arrangements
Music has evolved. From the classics to classic motown, from soul to slash-metal – a person’s music collection is usually as individual as they were. Today, most Ministers and Celebrants will support your choice of music for a funeral, even if it’s a little more avant guarde. But if you’re set on having something that’s quite specific and you know it might not resonate with everyone who’ll be there – there is a way around this.

Talk to the funeral director about finding an instrumentalist. Someone who can play the guitar, harp, flute, or organ at the service. Musicians are creative. Even the ‘hardest’ tune can be given a simple arrangement that will still honour the person’s wishes and reflect their life – and still feel appropriate for the occasion.

Well-known people and celebrities have the luxury of an extended service, but most services will allow time for two songs to be played or hymns to be sung. The funeral director will arrange to have the tunes played at an appropriate moment – usually from an iPod, or sometimes from a CD.

Do listen to the lyrics if you’re choosing a modern song over a piece of classical music. Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” has always been a popular choice and the words are incredibly moving, but not every song has such simple lyrics.

Then again, there are no right or wrong choices. And remember, there’s nothing to say that you have to have music at all. Tranquil, quiet reflection is something that some friends and families will find even more reassuring. The only thing that’s important at the end of the day, is that the music you include in your end-of-life plans reflects – you.