Two hymns made it into this year’s top ten list of songs played at funerals – for the first time in seven years. Rev Cassius Francis reflects on the resurgence of religious songs, and what our music choices can mean at such a difficult time
In the latest funeral songs chart, based on song selections from 93,000 funerals, two hymns – ‘All things bright and beautiful’ and ‘Abide with me’ – made it into the top ten. It was the first time in seven years that a hymn had been included.
Co-op Funeralcare, who carried out the survey, have indicated that the inclusion of more hymns was perhaps influenced by the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II last year. “Two hymns that were performed at the late queen’s funeral, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’, have been requested more frequently over the last year,” a Co-op spokesperson said.
Singing has always been central to the funeral service. Perhaps the inclusion of hymns, after a seven year absence, indicate that people still crave some spiritual familiarity when it comes to saying goodbye to their loved ones - or that our late Queen was still influencing people’s spirituality even after her death. But what else can influence our song choice at a time of such deep sorrow - and what do those choices communicate?
It is interesting to reflect on whether the music is chosen by the deceased person or the grieving family. This research also indicates that the deceased do not always get what they want. “When Co-op members were asked what song they would like at their funeral, ‘Jerusalem’ by Sir Hubert Parry and Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world’ were among the top ten, but these did not appear in the most played list”, said Gill Stewart, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare.
Some music is specific to certain communities and unlikely to make it into charts such as these
“Each element of a funeral is a very personal choice and we’re encouraging the nation to be more open about their funeral wishes…making it clear to their loved ones what they would want for themselves when the time comes, and music is a really simple and comforting place to start.”
Laying out your funeral wishes in advance can make it easier for loved ones to make the necessary arrangements and honour those who have died. But it’s also important that the funeral brings peace to those left behind, and choosing the right songs for a funeral can bring deep comfort.
What’s the message?
I would also encourage both those planning their funeral and bereaved families to consider the messages they wish to convey through the songs selected. If there is a light-hearted choice, could some people take offence or even misunderstand the intention?
One such example could be Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ which this year slipped out of the top ten. The music that we find comfort in will be different for each person and can be quite personal. But it is worth remembering that different family members, friends and the wider community may not understand the song choices without an explanation to go alongside them.
I also wonder if there is a generational attitude towards the music chosen that is not reflected in the chart. A recent project to use hymns to communicate the gospel message to older people is finding real popularity among those in later life. But many older hymns may simply be unknown now to a younger audience who no longer attend church or sing hymns in school assemblies.
Choosing the right songs for a funeral can bring deep comfort
There may also be a distinction between songs that are sung by the congregation and those that are performed or played during different parts of the service, such as the procession.
Heritage and tradition
When thinking about the popularity of funeral songs, it is also important to remember that there is some music that will be specific to certain communities.
The tradition of graveside singing is particularly familiar to African Caribbean communities, often as family members backfill the grave (if local authorities allow). Songs such as ‘Soon and very soon’, ‘I’ll fly away (to glory)’ and ‘When the roll is called up yonder’ are unlikely to make it into charts such as these, but they have nonetheless brought immense hope and encouragement to many people over the years.
And finally: a plea for my personal funeral requests: ‘It is well with my soul’ and ‘Precious Lord take my hand’. The latter gospel song was written in 1932 by Thomas A Dorsey in response to his inconsolable grief at the death of his wife and their infant in childbirth. I have often seen the words “take my hand” bring comfort and peace to the bereaved when they’re lost for words.
More information about planning a funeral can be found on the Loss and HOPE website