From time to time I hear funereal music I wish I had come across during my graduate research. (Although my cumulative list of funeral marches and lament music was marginally impressive, it was anecdotally developed and limited in scope.) Once in a while, I also come across others’ related writings. Below are extracts from an interesting article on mourning practices and singing. This research may deal only directly with practices in the United Kingdom, but it would seem applicable for most Western countries.
I will now discuss funeral music in some detail because it was the one occasion on which mourners in Britain used to be actively involved in musical performance, but — at least among the majority white population — this is now being rapidly replaced by music consumption. Funerals in many Western countries have recently become more personal (Garces-Foley and Holcomb, 2005) and/or secular (Walter, 1997), and in the UK one major way this is achieved is by listening to two or three of the deceased’s favourite CD tracks or to a piece of music that in some way captures the deceased’s personality. This is replacing communal hymn singing. Singing hymns was once the norm, but recent surveys in the city of Hull (Adamson and Holloway, 2012) and at one London crematorium (Parsons, 2012) indicate hymns now being sung at only a quarter of funerals. 9 (orig. 81)
Religious singing together is being steadily replaced by listening to secular (and occasionally religious) CDs, driven by personalisation and secularisation, but also reflecting the general decline of communal singing in England. 9-10 (orig. 81-82)
Singing together was once the main way in which the whole body of mourners participated in the funeral, engaging together in one of the performing arts to perform words of sorrow and hope. According to Davies (but he may possibly here be influenced by being Welsh), “Singing is, fundamentally, a community activity which sets group hopes and power over those of the individual.” (Davies, 1997, p. 58) But with the decline in church attendance and the familiarity with hymns that goes with it, and with the small numbers at many elderly people’s funerals in Britain, many people report finding singing hymns at a funeral to be excruciating, embarrassing and/or tedious (Caswell, 2012).
. . . the CD capturing the essence of the deceased individual becomes the funeral’s emotional powerhouse. . . .
In the months and years after the funeral, recorded music can continue to retain powerful associations with the deceased. I am doubtless not alone in going happily about my business when a track comes on the radio that reduces me to tears, reminding me of someone I care for who has died, years or even decades ago. 10 (orig. 82)
– Tony Walter, “How People Who Are Dying or Mourning Engage with the Arts, ” © Music and Arts in Action/Tony Walter 2012 | ISSN: 1754-7105 | Page 87. http://musicandartsinaction.net/index.php/maia/article/view/dyingmourning
Various cultures and ethnicities will naturally have various traditions and expectations concerning bereavement, funereal engagement, and mourning. At my own father’s memorial, I know there were tears, but no wailing occurred, for instance. Perhaps that is good (we grieved as those with hope), or bad (we were busy and distracted), or indifferent.
There were hymns, however—hymns in the lyrical sense and also a couple in the strictly musical sense. I had kept my vest-pocket copy of this program in sight in my office for a time (see here) in order to remind me of the life and of the death event. On the reverse side appears the program order itself. Here are the titles that feature hymn lyrics (addressed to God in worship/adoration):
God Himself Is With Us *
On Zion’s Glorious Summit *
Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art
I Behold You
Still, Still With Thee
* In both these cases, the initial lyrics are not addressed to Got but rather set the stage for direct worship in the latter part of the song: “O Thou Fount of Blessing . . . may I ceaselessly adore Thee” and “Holy, holy, holy Lord! God of hosts, on high adored,” respectively.
There were comments and a prayer of adoration led by three friends of nearly six decades, and the 95-year-old former president of Harding University made comments, as well. Dad’s brother read Psalm 121. Songs were led by Dad’s nephew, a brother-in-law, the son of one of the above-mentioned friends, and me. Recordings were played of my hymn “I Behold You” and my mother’s beautiful song “Silence,” which is about finding God. In all, six songs were sung congregationally, including “It May Be at Morn,” which I recall that Dad introduced to the Cedars congregation in Delaware when I was young. This song is not musically a hymn, and the stanzas are introspective, not directly worshipful. However, in my estimation, the chorus includes one of the top ten expressions of worship in that hymnal: “O Lord Jesus, how long? . . . Christ returneth! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen.” This is not the material of mourning. None of this particularly invites sadness, yet there were mixed emotions, remembering my dad as a man who worshipped God with all his heart, and who as a leader encouraged others to do the same for decades.
On the matter of reminiscing through a dead person’s favorite music: my mother recently found the CDs that Dad had chosen to take on their last trip together. I will probably always associate Pavarotti’s famed rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” with Dad. That music brought tears to his eyes many times. He was also very fond of a championship barbershop quartet’s song “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.” (Here is a YouTube recording of the same rendition.) I suppose one could say this is a song of mourning, but perhaps more, a song of tender memory. It will bring emotion to just about anyone! Dad had asked both my sister and me to play that for him during his hospitalization. Other music Dad chose includes Pachelbel, John Denver, western/pop songs of yesteryear by Sons of the Pioneers, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which he had loved for more than a half-century. My mom will always associate many of these selections with her husband of nearly 58 years.