How to choose the music for a funeral

“Mum would have hated that!”

Figuring out what a client wants for a funeral is a minefield for funeral professionals, especially if the client has only a vague idea of what they’re after. For some people bereavement provides perspective and focus, and planning the funeral is a welcome distraction. But for others grief can be like a fog, clouding around them and making decisions impossible. In cases like this, the only way to find what they want is to offer suggestions until something definite drifts into view – even if it’s just: “Oh no, Mum always hated All Things Bright And Beautiful”.

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What is the music there for?

As music providers we begin of course by asking: “What kind of music do you have in mind?” Sometimes we’ll get a clear answer, but even if not, the way the client interprets the question tells us something important: what they most want the music to achieve.

For example, if they begin to tell us how much their father loved jazz music, we can tell that their priority is to reflect their father’s musical taste. If they answer that the deceased lived her life with boundless energy and joy and they want music to match her spirit, then we know that it’s the ‘feel’ of the music that matters most. Perhaps the client will tell a beloved anecdote about listening to a Deep Purple album with their loved one, which tells us that what would bring them the most comfort is being reminded of the times they shared together.


Choosing the right thing

In some cases a client will tell us they don’t know what music they want, but in actual fact they do know deep down and are just afraid to ask for fear of doing the ‘wrong thing’. It’s our job to coax out what they would really like, and provide reassurance that no one knows the ‘right thing’ better than them. The ‘right thing’ is simply whatever songs best achieve whatever the music is there for, and we are committed to making pretty much any song work if that is what will best help those who are grieving.

For example, during one conversation we jogged a client’s memory about his mother’s love of The Beatles, and prompted a booking for five Beatles numbers to be performed during her funeral, in tribute to her music taste. Sometimes we get creative with what a client brings to us; we once arranged a bespoke medley of Jim Reeves songs mixed in with three favourite hymns. Another time we created arrangements of a client’s own compositions, written during a moment of reflection about her beloved uncle.  

However, with some clients the canvas is truly blank, and we have to work a little harder to establish a musical plan that they can be happy with. Other times, a client knows what they want, but they have to contend with obstacles put in their path by other people involved in the planning. Both scenarios require careful handling, but we have learned from experience the best ways to deal with them.

If in doubt, go traditional

In a case where, for example, a client has been told to organise some music for the service but is perhaps outside of the immediate family and has no idea what the music should be or do, the best answer is to play it safe. Although tastes and times are changing, the majority of funerals that we come across will feature two or three traditional religious hymns (such as Amazing Grace, Abide With Me, The Lord’s My Shepherd and How Great Thou Art), so that’s a good place to start. There are also some beautiful classical religious pieces that can function pretty neutrally in a funeral service while still bringing a touch of beauty and focus. Our favourites in this category are Schubert’s Ave Maria, Caccini’s Ave Maria, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem.

Find a compromise

This also works in situations where unfortunately the songs chosen by the family are not allowed in the venue where the funeral will be held. Some churches are stricter than others about allowing non-secular music to be played, and some do not even allow anything other than hymns. In most of these cases we will make new suggestions within the permitted boundaries set by the church, incorporating as much of the client’s wishes as possible. Sometimes this involves an entirely new song choice, but sometimes we can compromise by having the song played by an instrumentalist rather than sung. We have even gone so far as to stand our singer on the threshold of the church so that their secular hymn could still be heard by the congregation inside!

Classical pieces are also a good ‘neutral’ choice if there is a dispute about the music within the family. We don’t get involved in disputes between family members (beyond occasionally providing a listening ear for clients who need to blow off steam over the phone) but we will offer help with finding a solution. Often the answer comes down to either more music or less music – include all of the songs put forward by the family, or simplify the music down to the one piece that everyone can agree on. Another way to find a ‘neutral’ alternative is to pick a popular funeral song with lyrics that will still do justice to the feelings of the disputing parties – Il Divo’s Mama, Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings, Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father, and Sting’s Fields Of Gold are good examples.

Go your own way

One thing that has surprised us about our clients’ song choices is that a personal prior connection to the music isn’t always even necessary for the music to still achieve its purpose in a funeral service. One client found a song called Goodnight Irene while searching for music for her mother (Irene)’s funeral; neither she nor her mother had ever heard the song before, but she decided to personalise the song by writing her own lyrics to one of the verses, resulting in one of the most moving and memorable tributes we have ever seen. We suggested an Eva Cassidy song to another client who was looking for inspiration; having never heard of Eva Cassidy before, overnight she became such a fan of her music that she chose four songs for the funeral of her mother – who, we can only assume, had never listened to Eva Cassidy either.

Choosing music for a funeral is a challenge, but our clients have taught us that the ‘right’ music is not always the music that the person loved, or that best reflects their personality, but the music that provides the most comfort and solace to those left behind – whether it’s Ave Maria, Deep Purple, or Yellow Submarine.  

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

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