What song do you want played at your funeral? That was the question posed by journalist Elle Hunt to some of her contacts when she was writing her article ‘It’s your party and they’ll cry if you want them to: the lost art of picking funeral songs’ for the Guardian. It’s a great read actually, so do check it out.
But it did make me think, as a funeral celebrant, about all the families I go to see to arrange the funerals for their loved ones. Some have been given extensive instructions by their person about what songs are to be played, what readings they want (and by whom they are to be read) and the stories they would like (or would definitely NOT like!) to be shared at their funeral.
Sometimes, families have a little piece of paper with a few pieces of music on them, often that have been noted down when the person took out a financial funeral plan – and if this has been done some time ago, they will often include a list of hymns even if the person wasn’t religious, because they felt that was ‘the done thing’. And some families have nothing at all and are at a bit of a loss as to what music to choose for the funeral.
In my experience, it’s often helpful to the people left behind if their loved one has expressed any preferences. Although sometimes, they’re often baffled (particularly the ones who specify that their person was not religious at all but then tell me they asked for ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ to be sung!)
With funeral planning, as with many things in life, there really is no right or wrong. But sometimes a nudge in the direction of someone’s music tastes is helpful (and my family are under strict instructions as to the type of poetry I really don’t want read at my funeral!)
But then, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter what’s read or played at my funeral as I won’t be there to appreciate it… or otherwise!
Because a funeral is ABOUT the person who has died, but it’s FOR the people who are left behind.
Many times, when I have conducted a funeral, I’ve been approached by guests who ask me for my details because they want me to conduct their funeral. It’s always flattering of course and I do say to them that, if their family agree when the time comes (which of course we hope will be in the way distant future), I’d love to step up.
And this is the difference. It’s often helpful when someone has suggested what they would like but it can be quite stressful if it’s more of an instruction and they can’t track down the specific celebrant, the flowers aren’t in season or they don’t know which of the 397 versions of the song they asked for they liked. So ideally it’s about ideas rather than orders!
Death is still a big societal taboo subject, unfortunately, and there are many people who really can’t bring themselves to discuss their funeral preferences, even when they know their death is imminent. In fact, it can be even harder to talk about it in these circumstances.
I’d love to see the topic being discussed more – not in a heavy, morbid way, but in a positive, celebratory way. Discussing the song you’d like played at your funeral around the table when you’ve had friends over for some food and drink can actually be a really good conversation, honestly! Try it!
And if you have someone you love mention casually when a song comes on the radio that they’d like it played at their funeral, make a note (mental or actual) and remember it. Try to resist the urge to shut them down because you don’t want to think about it – being able to say these things out loud takes some courage and also trust in the listener. You’re being given a little gift. Keep the channel open for more.
Make a playlist on Spotify of your personal music choices. Keep readings or ideas in a safe place, whether it’s a physical space or a Pinterest board. Tell your loved ones where it is. Make talking about these things a normal part of conversation, if you can.
And if you can’t, maybe consider asking a celebrant or a friend to facilitate a conversation about it, either just with you to get clear on your ideas, or with your partner or family. It doesn’t have to be a gloomy conversation – there’s often a lot of laughter in these sorts of meetings, honest!!
PS for a bit of fun, try out this funeral music generator from SunLife (I got Beyoncé!)