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

And finally,

‘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?


  1. Hi Kate, we just got home and I'm catching up on blogs. I always enjoy reading your posts. Those song lists are good ones. I know what you mean about hymns washing over you after awhile. I think Al Green's Let Stay Together might work well.

    So sorry we missed you in London. We ended up going to Oxford that day - the light was particularly beautiful that afternoon for photography and we got some great shots. Thank you so much for the tip to visit Liberty of London. We loved the store. I bought two gorgeous pieces of silk there and Martin bought some beautiful shirting fabric.

  2. Thanks Susan. I just caught sight of your message today, May 5. So glad you liked Liberty. Hope you had a wonderful trip.

  3. Hi Kate, I've missed your blog and am glad to see there are some new posts. Btw, this is my new name (formerly Susan Tiner).

    I wish we lived closer to Liberty!