Why are funerals moving away from tradition?

The funeral service is changing. Funerals have begun to stretch out, explore their limits, and struggle against them. It is an exciting moment to witness from within the industry. As the growing popularity of live music is an important part of this shift, we as music providers have a good view from the front lines, and we also have a theory about why it has come about.

We are finding that families are prepared to push the boundaries of the traditional funeral service in order to shape the service that they want for their loved ones. One of the questions our clients most often ask us is “am I allowed?” They ask whether they are allowed to have secular music in a church, whether our singers are allowed to sing at the graveside – one client even asked to hide singers within the congregation to perform as a flash mob.

The music choices themselves also reflect a change in tastes: where before there were only hymns, there is now secular classical, pop and jazz music. At one memorable funeral our classical choir performed the West Ham football anthem, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. We began with a lone male voice booming from the back of the church, then slowly brought in all of the other male voices to add power, and finally had our female performers join in harmony an octave below their normal singing pitch. The result was incredibly powerful. At another service there were lyrics to popular musical theatre songs printed in the Order of Service instead of hymns. It could be argued that popular songs from theatre and film are today’s social equivalent of hymns: songs written for mass audiences with simple, memorable tunes and lyrics. Why not bring them into funeral services?

Of course the answer is that for many people it’s still important to protect the religious sanctity of the service. We have found that while many churches have relaxed their perspective on secular music, most will (understandably) not permit songs with inappropriate lyrics for the setting, and some will not allow non-religious songs at all. In some cases a compromise can be reached – for example, at one funeral our singer was allowed to stand on the threshold of the church door to sing his folk song to the congregation, as long as he did not stand within the church building itself.

The growing popularity of live music, and the lengths that families will go to in order to circumvent the rules of the institutions to which their loved ones belonged, testifies to the strength of the need for something more, this pull in a new direction. Our theory about what is causing this tension is a change in the function of the funeral, from an outward occasion to an inward.  

The generation now reaching the end of their lives grew up during the Second World War, where an attitude of putting aside one’s own self for the benefit the greater good was not only socially promoted but imperative for their country’s survival. After the war they voted for a National Health Service, into which everyone paid fairly for the general physical welfare of the nation. Likewise, the funeral service was regarded not as a personal affair but a social duty, an opportunity to show that your family understood what was expected of them by society. It was a public occasion, and it was expected of those who knew the deceased to be present and to pay their respects.

Now, however, the funeral has very much turned inward. People who knew the deceased are invited rather than expected to come, and decisions about the funeral service are left to the family. Where before the family could expect social censure if things at the funeral were not ‘done properly’, it is now considered crass to criticise a family’s choices – for who knew the deceased better than they did?

Since the war there has been a shift of focus, from the group to the self, from community to individuality. People are encouraged to express their personality, to deviate from the norm, and to buck expectations that impinge on their selfhood. The generation most affected by this shift are the baby boomers: the children of the generation currently coming toward the end of their lives – and, of course, the ones organising their funerals.

During the baby boomers’ lifetime, rebellion against conformity and self-expression became strong social imperatives, manifesting in teddy boys and beat poets, later hippies and punks. Financial independence and social mobility promised to set people free from their roots in the 1980s, and with the birth of the internet people were able to choose their own communities, unhampered by their geographical location, class or upbringing. We find ourselves now in the age of the selfie, where people are encouraged to stand out from the crowd via self-expression online.

An important moment for funerals during this cultural shift was the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. While regular state tradition was followed for the most part, the inclusion of Elton John’s live performance of Candle in the Wind showed, alongside Diana’s royal connection, a need to express what made Diana unique and different from the royal family.

Nowadays, the goal for most people planning a funeral service is not to live up to the expected norms of the community, but to make the service as individual as the person who has died. The baby boomers and their children need a way to say goodbye to their loved ones that reflects their selfhood as well as their place within a family or community.

We have been privileged to witness some of the beautiful ways in which our clients have made their loved ones’ funerals unique. One client’s ceremony was divided into two to reflect her mother’s Jewish upbringing and her discovery of Buddhism later in life, with live singers to represent her love of musical theatre. Another client made personalised mini bottles of brandy for each member of the congregation as a nod to her mother’s fondness for a tot each night before bed. But the easiest way to communicate a person’s personality (aside from the eulogy of course) is through a performance of their favourite music. As the funeral service grows and changes to encompass all that we now need from it, we look forward to helping people celebrate their loved ones through the music that represents them best.

By Briony Rawle

The London Funeral Singers

Telephone: 020 3488 3080

Website: www.londonfuneralsingers.co.uk

Twitter: @LFuneralSingers

Instagram: @londonfuneralsingers

This was first published in the April 2019 issue of Funeral Service Times

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