Funerals used to be so simple. They were never called a Celebration of Life, or a memorial service. Just funerals. Tom’s funeral. Jane’s funeral. As a child I never said, "You can’t come over to play today because we’re having a celebration of Mr. Slater’s life."
It never looked like a celebration and it never sounded like a celebration.
In 1888, when the successful novelist and phenomenal social reformist Mary Ward buried her mother in the Lake District, she called upon a group in Ambleside ‘who form a little society for performing music at funerals’ to play a hymn, some organ music and the ‘Death March’. She thought the ceremony was beautiful, simple and peaceful.
For the sixteen years I lived in our funeral home the soft tones of the Hammond organ rose above the quiet chatter and hypnotized me and whatever audience the day brought. From that efficient music box poured the notes of one hymn after another.
Our town was seeped in religion. A plethora of Southern Baptist churches outnumbered the one Presbyterian, the one Catholic, and the one Episcopalian church and thus defined the region.
Holy Roller churches and their glittery loud services sprang up overnight.
Tent revivals dotted the fields in the summer.
I always thought it might be nice to change the repertoire. I wondered how my father would have reacted if a widow insisted that he use Chattanooga Choo Choo to open the service because it was her husband’s favourite. Or, could he substitute That Old Black Magic for The Old Rugged Cross? But there was no chance that a funeral service in our town would host anything other than a hymn played simply.
The melodies of How Great Thou Art, Shall We Gather at the River and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder were played on the smooth keys of that organ over and over… And over. So I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for a certain numbness that washed over me when after a few years I no longer heard them. They remained in the background like a ghost sound and one refrain dissolved into another, into another.
When I moved away, returning only for short spurts, then not at all, the world changed and funerals and their music changed with it.
In 2006 a survey of five thousand Britains revealed their vote for the year’s
Top 10 Requested Funeral Songs:
Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt
Angels - Robbie Williams
I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
Pie Jesu - Requiem
Candle in the Wind - Elton John
With or Without You - U2
Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
Every Breath You Take - The Police
Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers
Moving right along to the
Top Country Funeral Songs of 2011
Dancing with the Angels - Monk and Neagel
Angels Among Us - Alabama
I Can Only Imagine - Mercy Me
There You’ll Be - Faith Hill
When I Get Where I’m Going - Brad Paisley
Go Rest High on that Mountain - Vince Gill
Daddy’s Hands - Holly Dunn
Holes in the Floor of Heaven - Steve Wariner
If I Had Only Known - Reba McEntire
My Wish - Rascal Flatts
‘Glee’ Season 2 Episode 21, Funeral Song List
Try A Little Tenderness - Otis Redding
My Man – Barbra Streisand
Pure Imagination - from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Some People - Gypsy
Back to Black - Amy Winehouse Death makes its own music.
Once a piece of music is heard at a funeral, whatever the tune may be, is it ever heard in quite the same way again?