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 elements.


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 pain.

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 there.

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 for meaning.

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 presence.


About the author

Alan Wolfelt

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 experiences.

For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.

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