Monday, April 20, 2009

Funeral Music

I conservatively estimate that I have presided over some 300 funerals in my short thirty-year career as a minister. At those funerals I have heard all kinds of music, some of it moving, some of it encouraging, some of it heart wrenching, most of it good, and a little of it bad.

My favorite funeral music story happened at the service for a gentleman who was a great lover of Westerns; he had a life-sized cutout of John Wayne in his den. His family made a request to which I agreed and, while some might thing it a strange request by them and a strange agreement by me, in retrospect I don’t regret it a bit. So it came to pass that as the body of the departed was being rolled from the sanctuary, the pianist played a stirring rendition of the theme from Bonanza. And everyone smiled.

Following a very worshipful service in the sanctuary for a good friend of mine, we repaired to the cemetery for the committal. There, after a recording of the most unfortunately titled "Untitled Hymn" (you may think of it like I do as "Come to Jesus") tore all of our hearts out, we listened to Eric Clapton’s "Layla." My only complaint was that it should have been the hard rocking Derek and the Dominos version rather than the laid-back acoustic version, but, it being a funeral and all, I understood.

Once my wife asked me what kind of funeral I would like to have; I don’t suppose she was planning anything since this was years ago and I’m still here. I said, “First, of all, I’d like to have a marching band.” She said, “You can’t have a marching band” to which I replied, “Well, if I can’t have what I want you can just plan it yourself.” I do understand the logistical problem with fulfilling my request but the more I think about it, the more I want it; specifically, I’d like to have Fleetwood Mac lead the University of Georgia Marching Redcoats Band in "Tusk." Now, I know that Fleetwood Mac used the USC Trojans Band in the video of the song, but hey, I’m a UGA fan. I want that song played at my funeral—even though I have no idea what it means—because I never hear it that it doesn’t get my blood pumping and I think it would be very interesting if they could get my blood pumping at my funeral service, which would be quite a trick if I follow through on my plans to be cremated. Maybe the blood of the living would get pumping anyway.

What got me to thinking about all of this is a survey of some 30,000 funerals that was recently commissioned in Great Britain by Cooperative FuneralCare that found that over half the songs used were popular songs as opposed to religious or classical pieces.

Here are the top five popular songs employed at funerals in Great Britain:

1. "My Way" - Frank Sinatra/Shirley Bassey.
2. "Wind Beneath My Wings" - Bette Midler/Celine Dion.
3. "Time To Say Goodbye" - Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli.
4. "Angels" - Robbie Williams.
5. "Over The Rainbow" - Eva Cassidy.

Down here in my neck of the woods one you hear quite often is “Go Rest High on that Mountain” by Vince Gill but I’m not surprised that it didn’t show up in the top five in Britain.

Here’s my assessment of the five that did make it.

“My Way”—the best song that Paul Anka ever wrote, it’s even better than “Having My Baby”; still, it strikes me as a little self-centered and over the top for a funeral—I mean, what if the deceased’s way was in retrospect a really badly chosen way? Still, were my good wife to predecease me, heaven forbid, I might consider having another Anka composition, “She’s a Lady,” sung, particularly if I could get Tom Jones to perform it and if he would let me join in on the “whoa whoa whoa” parts.

“Wind Beneath My Wings”—I beg you, if someone starts to sing that one at my funeral, find a way to kill me again.

“Time to Say Goodbye”—OK, this one’s gorgeous and if my good wife can get Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli to perform it live at my funeral, I say go for it. I would request, though, that they sing it in Italian, so that people would go away from my funeral as they do from so many of my sermons, muttering to themselves, “What did that mean?”

“Angels”—don’t know it and never heard it.

“Over the Rainbow”—another great and classic song. Still, I see two potential problems. First, heaven isn’t Oz. Second, do you really want people having visions of Munchkins and wicked witches and talking scarecrows and flying monkeys at your funeral? Yeah, me too.

Incidentally, among the chart movers on the popular song list were “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and “Bat out of Hell” by Meatloaf. My goodness.

By the way, the survey also noted the top five religious songs employed at British funerals:

1. "The Lord Is My Shepherd".
2. "Abide With Me".
3. "All Things Bright And Beautiful".
4. "Old Rugged Cross".
5. "Amazing Grace".

You won’t be surprised, given my Christian bias, to hear that I’m all in favor of any of those.

A funeral service, I believe, has three main purposes, which I list here in order of the priority that should be given to them: (1) to worship God, (2) to comfort the family and friends of the deceased and to assist them in processing and coming to terms with their grief, and (3) to celebrate the life of the departed.

I can see the use of various types of music to accomplish those purposes; I really can.

But as for me, I want my funeral service to say “Untitled Hymn”—wait, I mean “Come to Jesus.”

Still, I can see those University of Georgia Marching Redcoats strutting down the aisle….


Trey said...

Everytime I sing "Untitled Hymn" in church I have several people come up to me and request that I sing it at their funeral. I just tell them that I hope it is no time soon! :)

David C. George said...

This sounds too funny to be true, but a highly respected Church of Christ minister told me it actually happened at a Nashville funeral home several years ago. The woman who had died loved "The Wizard of Oz." Her children asked if they could play "Somewhere over the Rainbow" at the end of the service. The funeral director put the CD in the machine and on cue started the music. The congregation was astonished to hear "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead."

Michael Ruffin said...

David, as Buechner said of the gospel, that's too good not to be true!

Frances said...

I am going to be cremated and I want my ashes scattered in the creek on our farm in Alabama and I want a recording of Alabama singing "Sweet Home Alabama." Did I mention Alabama?