I’m an obituary aficionado. I appreciate how a thoughtful, well-written obituary presents a life, a legacy, in a nutshell: abbreviated family tree, work history, accomplishments, hobbies, talents. I prefer obits with a little personality, like the one I clipped out that included the line, “She baked a hell of a brownie.” I’ve made a start on my own obituary. My husband—and just about every other person I’ve mentioned it to—finds that strange.
It’s a short step from writing your own obituary to planning your funeral, or leaving explicit instructions that you don’t want one. Some of you might recall my post about playing the piano at a memorial service for Walt, a dear listener who passed away in summer of 2013. Walt planned that service himself, a comforting gift to his two daughters, who knew exactly how to carry out his wishes for a final goodbye. At the memorial, Walt’s voice teacher sang “Goin’ Home,” a spiritual adapted from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I accompanied on piano. Not a dry eye in the place.
Another listener, Ted, asked me recently if I would play “Goin’ Home” again. It seemed a fitting request for fall, when—after a brief riot of color—leaves complete their life cycle and fall to the ground, leaving the Midwest brown and barren.
I hunted around for a piano solo version of “Goin’ Home” to satisfy Ted’s request, and found one in a book called, appropriately, Going Home: 75 Songs for Funerals, Memorial Services and Life Celebrations. It contains standard hymns like “Rock of Ages” and “Amazing Grace,” as well as modern pieces I wouldn’t have thought of, like “You’ll Be in My Heart” by Phil Collins.
Co-operative Funeralcare in the U.K. tracks funeral music requests. They’ve found that popular songs are edging out hymns at memorial services. Here are the top ten funeral songs revealed by their survey (the favored vocalist is often British, given the audience they polled):
- “My Way” (Frank Sinatra)
- “Time to Say Goodbye” (Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli)
- “Wind Beneath My Wings” (Bette Midler)
- “Over the Rainbow” – (Eva Cassidy)
- “Angels” (Robbie Williams)
- “You Raise Me Up” – (Irish band Westlife)
- “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Gerry and the Pacemakers)
- “We’ll Meet Again” (Vera Lynn)
- “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion)
- “Unforgettable” (Nat King Cole)
And here are a few other bygone popular songs I think might fit well at funeral services:
- The World War II ballad “I’ll Be Seeing You”
- “Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye,” another WWII-era song
- Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?”
- “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables
- “What a Wonderful World,” first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967
- Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” written after his 4-year-old son died
- “Smile (When Your Heart Is Aching),” theme from the 1936 Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times
I’ve heard of funerals that end with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
But for the most unsentimental among us, there’s this suggestion from a drummer friend: the 1993 country tune “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die).”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.