Sound of the soul: how to choose music for a funeral
Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was
below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.
Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)
Music is the language of the heart, a way to share our most intense joys and sorrows. In times of grief, music evokes tears and smiles, and then surrounds us with a comforting embrace. The music played or sung at a funeral will live on in the hearts and memories of those who attend the funeral.
Selecting appropriate music is an important part of planning a meaningful funeral service. Carefully chosen funeral music will comfort and inspire guests as they celebrate the life and mourn the passing of the deceased.
Typically, funeral music is chosen to fulfill one of these purposes:
- Commemorate the life and personality of the deceased
- Convey feelings for or about the deceased
- Express religious beliefs about death and life after death
Making appropriate selections
When choosing music for a funeral that involves a religious service, talk to the clergy member about any religious rules regarding the music to be played. Some religions do not allow secular (popular) music at a religious service. If so, you may still select secular music, but be sure it is played or sung outside of the religious service – as people are taking their seats and waiting for the service to begin, for example.
Beyond religious considerations, there are no rules governing funeral music – only the family's wishes and cultural customs. Classical or new age instrumentals provide soothing background music, while sacred hymns offer hope. Popular songs that reflect the personality and interests of the deceased will stir memories that bring a smile to the lips or a tear to the eye.
If there is any doubt about the dignity or sensitivity of a musical selection – even if it was a favorite of the deceased – be sure to discuss your concerns with family members. After you've made your selections, give a copy of them to the family. To help guests understand the significance of an unusual selection, consider introducing the song with a story about its meaning for the deceased.
In planning the funeral service and scheduling the music, remember that it's not necessary to fill every moment with music. Guests may appreciate a few moments of silence for reflection between songs.
Resources for funeral music
A live performance by a talented friend or family member can lend a deeply personal touch to the music played at a funeral. If you don't know a musician or singer who can sing at the funeral, however, ask the funeral director for recommendations, or check with your church – church musicians and choir members are often available to perform at funeral services.
Most funeral homes also have sound systems on which you can play your own CD or tape, and many also have large selections of recorded music – classical, popular, or sacred – from which you can choose the pieces you'd like to hear. No matter what the source of your music, make sure you listen to the piece first to make sure, for example, that it is not a live version (with large crowds cheering) if you wanted the studio version.
Some suggested pieces for playing at a funeral
Amazing Grace – Elvis Presley
Angel – Sarah McLachlan
Angels – Robbie Williams
Candle In The Wind – Elton John
Death Is Not The End – Bob Dylan
Everybody Hurts – REM
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Have I Told You Lately – Van Morrison
The Long And Winding Road – The Beatles
Memory – Barbra Streisand
My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion
My Way – Frank Sinatra
Over The Rainbow – Eva Cassidy
Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton
Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers
Unforgettable – Nat King Cole
What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
Adagio For Strings – Albinoni
Agnus Dei – Samuel Barber
Ave Maria – Andrea Bocelli
Canon in D major – Pachelbel
Lacrimosa, from Requiem in D Minor – W.A. Mozart
The Lark Ascending – Vaughan Williams
Pavane – Fauré
Pie Jesu – Fauré and others
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but we hope it gives you a good starting point. For hymns, speak to your minister who will be able to advise you on what is appropriate for a funeral.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find books to help you through bereavement and music for funeral services.