If music be the food of grief

Charles Cowling

I’m doing a funeral next Monday. I didn’t know one of the songs they want, so I when I got back from seeing them I called up my faithful friend Spotify and played it through to get acquainted. And to get the running time, of course.

As the song began to play, the written words I had worked so hard to assemble shrunk into a feeble huddle. The power of music is great. Even to an unmusical person like me.

Like many celebrants, I can no longer listen to songs that were played at particularly sad funerals.

I reflected on this at the weekend when out motoring with the missus. Her in-car wireless was set to Smooth or R2 or something like that (all the presets on mine are tuned to R4), when Whitney Houston came on singing I Will Always Love You. I gently turned it down for the duration.

The lyric was completely unsuited to the sentiment that the wife of the man who had died wanted to express – a common problem with funeral songs. It didn’t matter at all. All that mattered was that refrain: I will always love you. And it tore at our hearts as we sat and listened. Even mine. How much greater was the effect on those who experience music in the fullness of its power?

And I wondered, as I tried to dismiss the memory of Whitney from my ear, whether this isn’t something people need to think about – that there’s a difference between a song which is cathartic and one which is emotionally inflammatory.

Or is there?

5 thoughts on “If music be the food of grief

  1. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Wonderful, Sonya! Thank you!

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    How ’bout ‘just’rythms. They are somewhat traditional when spirits journey.
    Get that spine tingling:

    Catharic? I think so.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    PS think I’ll run as post asking for most effective (in any sense) music people have heard at funerals.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Interesting distinction Charles. Maybe there is music that is cathartic because it breaks through and makes you cry, (even if you know it well enough eg a piper playing “Flowers of the Forest” by the graveside still seems to do the job..)

    And maybe there is music that is upsetting without offering the sort of necessary and cathartic pain Jonathan seems to be referring to? The latter category might well be highly individual – memories, associations etc, that stir regrets, guilts even?

    And then there’s “My Way.” A truly inflammatory and upsetting song. That isn’t the sort of pain I ever want at anyone’s funeral – but if that’s what they want, of course…

    Ms Houston’s song is a dated sort of wobbly warbling nowadays you might say, if listened to coldly. But I first heard it at the funeral of a young student. Consequently, I can’t listen to it coldly. Ever.

    Maybe people need to be careful when they choose a favourite song – it may thereafter always be associated with the funeral. Maybe the Desert Island Discs approach isn’t always the best.

    I don’t know that we always need more pain at a funeral, though. This is well-tilled ground, so to be brief: I know that it can be unhealthy for people to slide over the top of their grief just to get out of the door, but I maintain that you can’t tell how much grief someone is feeling by looking at them. If the children of a cricket fan want to get themselves out of the door with the music from Test Match Special, that too is their choice. (‘Course, were they Australians, they’d have reason enough to weep this morning!)

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    No, it isn’t the lyrics, though sometimes the refrain eclipses the meaning of the rest of the song – no-one wants to go to a funeral, so why are we hearing ‘Wild Horses Wouldn’t Drag Me Away’ on Thursday?

    But emotionally inflammatory can be cathartic, if it’s not soothing balm we need. Not long ago, a mother chose for her son’s funeral ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?’; ‘Everybody Hurts’; and Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ – I can even sing that one now, and it makes me bawl just to write this about it.

    No, sometimes it’s more soothing, in the end, to look death in its ugly face than to turn away and contemplate angelic compassion.

    Pain is just what we need more of at funerals.

    Charles Cowling

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