Thursday, 13 October 2011

Funeral Music

A couple of times now I've started to write a post about the music that people choose, or have chosen for them, at their funerals. But I kept putting it off as the subject was a little raw, there having been a spate of deaths that were too close for comfort -- six relatives, two friends, the child of two friends, two work colleagues, and two three* mentors. But it is an interesting subject, and there's no point in being stand-offish with Death. He/she/it does what he/she/it pleases.

Once upon a time, of course, this wasn't much of an issue, at least in nominally Christian Britain. The Book of Common Prayer does a poetic and workmanlike job of steering grieving relatives and friends through the grim business, and a couple of favourite hymns would give everyone something useful to do with their voice. Job done.

But the exponential secularization of our culture means that people are increasingly thrown back onto their own resources at a very difficult time. It reminds me of the arguments in favour of school uniforms -- the lack of choice used to mean social and cultural differences were smoothed over in a helpful way. You might have been a culture-free, violent and bigoted old sod in life, but in death you finally acquired a touch of class. The freedom to do what you like comes at a price, and a non-Christian funeral is often a confusing and unsatisfactory affair, one where the lack of purpose, belief and -- above all -- taste in many people's lives are mercilessly exposed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the business of choosing music. Mawkishness and a near-universal inability to hear or understand song lyrics come to the fore, closely followed by a breathtaking lack of tact and sense of occasion. John Cleese truly (hilariously, appropriately) broke the mould with his eulogy at Graham Chapman's funeral; but the choice of the "Chinese version" of Jerusalem ("Bling me my spiel, Oh crowds unford," etc.) and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life equally truly set the bar for puerile evasion of grief so low that we're still tripping over it.

So... OK, pop pickers... [cue up At the Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal]...

A poll of 5000 Brits, carried out in 2006, delivered this Funeral Top Ten:

1. Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt
2. Angels - Robbie Williams
3. I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
4. Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
5. Pie Jesu - Requiem
6. Candle in the Wind - Elton John
7. With or Without You - U2
8. Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
9. Every Breath You Take - The Police
10. Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers

And here, from the same year, is the Co-Op Funeral Service's Top Ten:

1. Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
2. My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion
3. I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston
4. Simply The Best - Tina Turner
5. Angels - Robbie Williams
6. You'll Never Walk Alone - Gerry And The Pacemakers
7. Candle In The Wind - Elton John
8. Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers
9. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon And Garfunkel
10. Time To Say Goodbye - Sarah Brightman

[Sound effect of skidding record player needle]

Good grief. I mean, honestly. You can see why -- faced with a difficult choice at a difficult time -- someone's family or friends might reach for some of these, but how would you like to be played out to a song about an obsessive stalker (The Police), the implication that you were the stairway to someone else's success (Bette Midler), or best remembered by your smell (James Blunt)?

I doubt any of these songs have been chosen by the, um, "loved one", however. A shame, really: one's funeral is a last chance to play Desert Island Discs, isn't it? I suspect there are a lot of people (alright, men) of my age out there constantly refining their own Funeral Mix. I don't have a problem with this, provided it's a short and well-chosen list. However, I don't want to sit through both sides of anyone's P60 tape on a hard bench, however tastefully thought out.

As I posted a while back, Box of Rain by the Grateful Dead was played at a dear friend's memorial, and -- despite the fact that I generally loathe the Grateful Dead -- it was very moving. It was his choice, and all about him, and damn near rendered two hundred people helpless with sobbing. When it comes to my turn, if I think about it, I'm torn between reducing everyone to gratifying tears (May You Never, by John Martyn, perhaps?) or posthumously kicking off a wild baccanal (free whisky all round and The Pogues?). I'll let you know.

As far as I can see, there are only two up sides to dying young. First, vastly more people are likely to turn up for your funeral, and they are far more likely to know (and care) who you actually were. Second, they're more likely to share your taste in music. The scenario of a memorial where the careful choice of music -- made years earlier by the deceased party -- is played to a three-quarters empty room of uncomprehending, indifferent strangers is a tragi-comic one, reminiscent of a Chekhov short story. Luckily you'll be dead.

* The mentor count went up by one after I started this post. R.I.P. Geoffrey Ford.


Martin said...

I never Geoffrey Ford, but his name often came up during my eleven years at Southampton. He was obviously a man who left an impression. More than most of us will achieve.

Dave Leeke said...

Can't help but join in with the list. My family know that:

When I Get To The Border (Richard Thompson)
Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention)
Meet On The Ledge (FC again)

HAVE to be played or there will be proof of life beyond the grave.

I don't care if they are too obvious. They are the songs that have stood by me, and I stand by them.

Also, from a sort of connections pov, we played numbers 2 and 3 at my Mother's funeral too. So, a sense of "inheritance tracks" perhaps.

Paul Mc Cann said...

I'd like to think someone might pick "Che farò senza Euridice?" from Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice for my funeral !

MikeP said...

Interesting post. This issue has been hotly debated over at the Word magazine blog recently, and Box of Rain and Who Knows Where the Time Goes came up several times there.

I have deejayed, so to speak, at 2 funerals of loved ones, and both times I got the congregation out of the church to Mozart's Regina Coeli, K108 - it puts a definite spring in the step!

My lot have been instructed that I want Ray Charles's Hit the Road Jack - on a loop if necessary.

Mike C. said...

My problem with most popular music choices is that, ultimately, they don't meet the Coltrane test, they're not "as serious as your life". Some would like to be, but they're simply not.

If we're talking proper music, a whole new world opens up. "Che faro" is an interesting choice (I like Andreas Scholl's version), but a little too tuneful for me -- I don't want people humming along as my mortal remains slide through the curtain. For a really strong combination of pure taste, drama, and tear-jerking, I don't think you can beat Purcell and "Dido's Lament". "Remember me, Remember me..." [sob]. I don't think I'd want to inflict that on my family and friends, though.

For me, I think there's no escaping Bach. My current, front runner would be something simple, short, well-known, but utterly, bottomlessly profound -- perhaps just Glenn Gould playing the first aria of the Goldberg Variations.


David Brookes said...


Great post which made me realise how much I have missed your writing during your summer break.

My own choice is "beim schlafengehen" , from Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs" - absolute magic!

RobG said...

Late to the party, but I want Yakkety Sax (AKA The Benny Hill theme) played as they lower me to my final rest. At full volume (and on a loop if required) too, thank you very much. If anyone at the graveside is offended, well, they get to go home and miss the wake.

For the service, maybe something from Elgar, played softly in the background. I love rock (I'm of THAT generation), but I want my friends relaxed, then shocked into laughter as they wish me farewell.

Martyn Cornell said...

For my father's funeral, I chose something funereal by the Chieftains (duelling bodhrans) for the entrance and a piece of stirring Bach harpsichord concerto for the exit. The most affecting piece of funeral exit music I have heard was picked by the guy himself, Irishman who died in his early 50s - the crowd at Lansdown Road singing "The Fields of Athenry". Packed church, barely a dry face. Personally I'd choose another piece of RT, Linda singing "Dimming of the Day".