Why we use music at funerals
"Where words leave off, music begins." -
Heinrich Heine, German lyric poet
The meaningful funeral ceremony is a tapestry. That's the
idea we've been discussing in this series on the importance of the
various elements of the funeral. When a funeral is made up of a
number of these elements, it creates a transformative experience
much greater than the sum of its individual parts. While each
family's ceremony will and should be a unique tapestry, it can only
be a tapestry if it draws on a full repertoire of possible
In the last two articles, I reviewed why we have viewings and
why the body should be present.
Here, I will present a rationale for incorporating music into
the funeral process as much as possible.
For many important moments and settings in life, we turn to
music to help set the tone and establish context. Can you imagine
the holidays without music? What would a great film be without its
soundtrack? And what about birthdays and weddings?
For funerals, music has long held an equally important role. In
pagan times, chants were sung at funerals to placate the spirits.
In ancient Rome, the funeral procession included musicians playing
wind instruments, and professional singers were hired to sing the
praises of the dead. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of
classical composers, including Handel and Chopin, wrote funeral
marches, which were slow and solemn pieces often in a minor key.
Throughout human history, it has been recognised that music and
funerals belong together. At the funeral, music is one way we let
friends and family know that their normal and necessary emotions of
grief, which music tends to draw forth, are welcome. Music is also
a universal, unifying medium that joins mourners and speaks for
them when words are inadequate.
Quiet reflection during musical interludes often stimulates
acknowledgment of the reality of the death. Music often helps us
move from knowing something in our heads to knowing something in
our hearts. What's more, music is often very moving to mourners and
can provide effective moments in which to think about their loss
and embrace and move them toward expression of their
Another purpose of the funeral is recall, and music can
help us with this. Songs that represent or were meaningful to the
deceased draw forth memories. Music associated with special times
we shared with the person who died, as well as lyrics that seem to
capture him or her, elicit memories we may not even have known were
Have you ever noticed that during musical interludes at a
funeral, the mourners gathered will often hold hands, lean on one
another or embrace? That's because music is also effective at
activating empathy and thus support.
And although music is very individualistic, and people often
bring their own unique meanings to any given piece, certain pieces
of music speak to a body of faith or, more generally, to
spirituality and often bring mourners meaning. Hymns are
an obvious example, but classical music, pop songs and other
musical genres can be just as effective at helping mourners search
Of course, the timeless themes and messages of music can also
often bring us to places of transcendence during a
funeral, even in the midst of our grief.
I encourage you to be open-minded about music at the funeral
ceremony (and also the viewing and when gathering for fellowship
after the funeral). To my way of thinking, any form or type of
music that helps meet the mourning needs of family and friends
should be welcomed. When selecting music, you may like to
consider the following: What music did the person who died love?
What music reminds you of him or her? What music captures your
feelings best about this unique life and death? Who in your circle
of friends and family plays an instrument or sings and could be
invited to participate in the ceremony?
The challenge is to find ways to incorporate the answers to
these questions into the unique funeral you are planning. Without
doubt, music is an essential and beautiful element of every
funeral. Don't let your family miss out on its healing
About the author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author, educator, and consultant
to hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, funeral homes and
other community agencies. His life's work of companioning those who
grieve has lead him to advocate for the value of meaningful funeral
For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.