Music has played a role in funerals since ancient times when survivors chanted to appease the spirits. Ancient Roman funeral processions included both mimes and musicians, and New Orleans jazz funerals reach back to Africa. (Think “When the Saints Go Marching In.”) Dancing follows the burial of the deceased to release tension and restore the spirit. At the Augusta, Georgia, funeral of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, over 9,000 people danced to music played by his band.
Catholic funerals recognize the power of music, such as “Amazing Grace” or “Ave Maria” and other sacred selections, to console mourners and allow them to connect with and express profound emotions. The choir sang psalms at U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral Mass. Meaningful selections are made in consultation with the pastor. Although secular songs are not permitted at the funeral, they are suitable after the vigil service or at a gathering after burial.
At other churches, funeral music may range from hymns or anthems to patriotic or pop music, such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Elton John performed a version of “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral, Music by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Handel, or others, are classical favorites. Songs and hymns may be sung by assembled mourners, a choir, or a soloist.
In a sign of the times, some funerals and memorial services have become less traditional and somber. They may be called “celebrations of life,” where almost anything goes. In a survey of over 30,000 funerals in 2014, the website www.co-operativefuneralcare.co.uk/funeral found only 30 percent of requests for funeral music involved hymns (led by “Abide by Me”). Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” ranked fifth in popularity. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” placed ninth.
For a wealth of information and possibilities, check out journalist and author Pat McNees’ website at http://www.patmcnees.com/music-for-funerals-and-memorialservices-51... Favorites are also listed at http://funeralhelper.org/funeral-music/popular-funeral-music.html.Because music is associated with festivity and happiness, it is not usual at Jewish funerals or memorial services. Music isn’t found at Muslim funerals, either, such as the services for the world champion boxer Muhammad Ali.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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