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
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
[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.