So have you chosen your funeral music yet? No rush, but I figure we’ve got about fifty years left and it took me almost forty to settle on mine, so I’m just saying. And I'm not sure why, but there seems to be a lot of advertising in the Netherlands just now for funeral insurance: uitvaart verzekering or "outward voyage insurance". (I enjoy the visible brickwork of Germanic languages.)
I've seen one ad specifically focused on music as something you might want to prearrange. Which is worth considering, if only to avoid those unfortunate choices that are sometimes made on the basis of a title or single lyric taken out of context (e.g. "Every Breath You Take" at a wedding). I think this company missed the irony when they chose "This Is The Life" to illustrate their Celebrate! (vieren) funeral package.
I saw this CD in the library yesterday and began to think about what makes music work at a funeral. Classical seems to be a standard choice and within that there are the standards: Barber, Pachelbel, adagios in general. Solemn and bittersweet seem to be the watchwords.
Which I guess is the thing. People generally want to strike a balance between grief and acceptance. Things become clichés because they work and adagios work because they encourage a slow leak of emotion. Enough bleeding to get the hurt out, but slow enough that a scab forms and you don’t die. There’s a nobility to them that marks the occasion and the deceased as important, but stiffens you against complete collapse.
But adagios are also fairly impersonal. They speak about death and impermanence in general. Funerals are increasingly seen as stages for a personal tribute and while not everyone will get a bespoke musical memorial from the likes of Sir Elton, popular songs with personal relevance and familiarity are probably more common than classical standards today.
There are a number of websites that offer lists of popular music for funerals, some of which are quite specific, like songs to be played while white doves are released. Or this one, songs for suicides, which starts off with The Smiths’ "Sing Me To Sleep". I think that if you loved someone who had just killed themselves, hearing this tired voice from the grave would be more disturbing than consoling. Despite Morissey's plea not to feel bad for him, you’d feel blamed, or at least, at fault. Plus, it’s just heartbreaking. If your heart is already broken, I’m not sure that’s useful. And funerals, and funeral music, should be emotionally useful. Again, there’s a difference between choking up and just choking.
I think there’s something to be said for creating a sense of wonder at your funeral. Wonder that this particular person existed. About the ways we do and don’t belong in the world. How a stream of experience makes a person and then stops. Or maybe goes on. And you can call it a “celebration”, but saying goodbye to someone you loved isn’t fun. Stately is good but sombre isn’t necessary. For me, wonder captures all of that. It means appreciating without falling apart. It might change at some point, but for some time now my funeral music has been "Spider and I" by Brian Eno.