Selecting music for a funeral

Funeral music has its origins in ancient chants which, it was hoped, would appease the spirits. It was once a very sombre tradition, with services generally including hymns and maybe a funeral march – slow music in a minor key composed to mimic a funeral procession. Chopin's much-parodied 'Marche Funèbre', from his Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, is the most famous.

Nowadays, you have more choice over the music played at a funeral service – favourite songs of the deceased, modern expressions of love or grief, even comedy tunes – meaning you can make the occasion a more celebratory and personalised affair. Get it right, and music can be a powerful way of evoking memories of the deceased.

A traditional church funeral service will begin and end with organ music, and will include hymns and appropriate choral or solo pieces. Some of the most popular hymns are 'The Lord's My Shepherd', 'Abide With Me' and 'Jerusalem'. Soloists might sing Schubert's 'Ave Maria' or an excerpt from Handel's Messiah.

Of course, you can choose something more modern. Some of today's classics include Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind', Robbie Williams' 'Angels', and 'Over the Rainbow'. Or you can go with a favourite of the deceased, or something that brings back memories of them – the theme tune of a TV show they watched regularly, for example. There are lots of websites with lists and clips of popular songs that can help if you're struggling for ideas.

Another option which can help lift the mood of a funeral is to choose something funny or alternative. 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' from Monty Python's Life of Brian is very popular, as is 'I've Had the Time of My Life'. Peter Sellers had Glen Miller's 'In the Mood' played at his funeral, not because he liked it but because he hated it and knew the choice would amuse his fellow Goons.

You also need to decide if you want live performers or recorded music. Most church funeral services will have an organist and choir. Alternatively, you can hire a band of musicians. Most crematoria will provide an organist, a selection of pre-recorded music you can choose from, and a music system on which you can play music of your choice.

Some special types of funeral have their own particular traditions. At military funerals muffled drums beat slowly during the procession and, in the British Commonwealth, the Last Post is played on a bugle as the body in interred.

In the United States, bagpipes are played at the funerals of firefighters and policemen. Bagpipes at funerals is a Celtic tradition. When the Irish arrived in America in the nineteenth century they were only allowed to apply for the most dangerous and difficult jobs – like firefighters and policemen. When they were killed, bagpipes were played at their funerals. Gradually Irish bagpipes were replaced by Scottish bagpipes, which are louder.

Another very distinctive tradition is the jazz funeral of New Orleans. Family and friends of the deceased process from the home, church or funeral parlor to the cemetery, accompanied by very solemn dirges. After the completion of the final ceremony they march on to a gathering place and, when they get there, the music turns loud and upbeat and everyone raises their hats in the air and dances, even the onlookers.

It's unlikely that you will be called on to organise a military or jazz funeral. The decisions you have to make are whether to choose traditional or contemporary music, and to find pieces that were important to, or speak of, the deceased. Music can play a very important part in bringing back memories of a departed loved one.

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