We’re always pleasantly surprised at how much our clients enjoy hearing live music at funeral services – but the funny thing is, they often seem a bit taken aback themselves. Not by how talented the singers are, but at how much more of a difference it made than they were expecting.
People book music for funerals because for them it’s on the checklist, along with the church, the flowers, and the reception. But the real impact of live funeral music is something you only really appreciate when you’re there, in that powerful and spiritual space, listening to it. We see congregations suddenly stir and break out of a torpor of sadness as we begin to sing; family members smiling through tears; vast emotional distances being closed; even laughter as familiar songs dredge up beloved old memories.
Looking back over our customer reviews, we can see that there are several ways in which live music goes further than you might expect in achieving what the funeral service is there for. The first of these is that it helps the family feel that they have done right by the deceased.
“I feel I’ve done the best possible for my mum”
Many of our clients talk about the idea of ‘a fitting tribute’ in their feedback – a weighty concept, which funeral directors know can be greatly underestimated. Organising a funeral is an enormous responsibility. You have to create a funeral that can somehow live up to, and fully express, the impact that the deceased person had on the lives of those present. You only get one chance, and the family mustn’t come away feeling that they’ve let their loved ones down. It’s a daunting and seemingly impossible undertaking for all involved, and sometimes choosing the right flowers or getting the mass perfect still doesn’t quite reach the mark.
In comments from our clients who feel that live music helped them achieve this, what strikes us most is a palpable sense of relief: “Choral music was a big part of my mum’s life and so it was important that we got it right… I feel I’ve done the best possible for my mum.”
Part of accomplishing this task is, of course, making the service a memorable one – even, as one client wrote: “Something to remember forever”.
“Something to remember forever”
Sound memory is stored in the brain for longer than visual memories, which is why hearing a special song can be much more efficient when remembering people or places than looking at a picture or trying to remember a face. You may have seen the many videos online of unresponsive dementia patients suddenly coming to life at the sound of an old song from their youth.
While the original recording of a song can achieve this very successfully, a bespoke live rendition sung just for the people present breathes new life into the song, giving the congregation a special new memory to accompany the ones conjured by a familiar recording on a well-worn CD.
Congregational singing is a great way for everyone to get involved, rather than just being passive listeners. It breaks up the flow and punctuates the service, and that nice dose of endorphins that’s released by singing is really refreshing. Not everyone feels comfortable singing in public, so for some the hymns are a necessary evil. But when a professional singer is there to lead the singing, a shy congregation gets permission to really let go, wake up muscles from head to foot, and engage in a more active, physical and connected way.
We have seen in our work that choosing the right music for the entry of the coffin can really help to focus the attention of the congregation. Instead of music being just the conventional background texture of the processional, a person stepping forward to sing brings a special hush into the room that really heightens the atmosphere. We find that the spine-tingling opening notes of Schubert’s Ave Maria, sung without any backing from the organ, particularly effective for this – one client who chose it for their service described it as “beautiful, emotional” and [most importantly] “unforgettable”.
Finally, we need to bring up something of a taboo: the funeral is not really for the dead – it’s for the living.
The funeral service is the most important milestone in the grieving process, and it’s a privilege to join other funeral professionals in helping people get what they need from it. Our clients’ feedback shows us that there are as many things that a funeral service must do as there are members of the congregation, and that live music can help with nearly all of them.
For example, some people need catharsis, some way to release pent-up emotion in a safe and supportive environment though a heightened atmosphere that transcends the mundane:
“Many of those attending the funeral commented on the passion of the performance.”
“There were no dry eyes in the room.”
“The atmosphere was electric.”
Others are just after a little moment of comfort during all the turbulence that comes with grief:
“[The singers] brought serenity and grace to the service.”
Many also use music to lift their spirits, and remind them to celebrate the time they were given with the person who is gone, as well as mourn their passing:
“It was a difficult day but they ensured that the funeral was uplifting.”
“[They] gave what is normally a sombre occasion a real boost of solace for the soul.”
Of course the funeral organiser’s goal is for people to come away from the service changed. But the rite of the funeral is such an ancient, well-trodden ritual that it can be hard to keep it from feeling routine. Grief takes comfort in the familiar but the death of a loved one, while a natural part of life, is never routine, so it takes something out of the ordinary to capture and reflect it.
Through our work, we see that music reaches places that words simply can’t touch. In that unique moment where a song comes alive through a singer or choir, and binds together the people there listening and witnessing, the funeral service can surpass our expectations and become what any of us would want our own funerals to be: something beautiful and extraordinary.
By Briony Rawle of The London Funeral Singers
020 3488 3080
This feature first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Funeral Service Times