Why live music is best at funerals

Charles 7 Comments

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould, the James Dean of classical music


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

A follow up to Charles’s lyrical piece about the inadequacy of music at funerals.

With recorded music at funerals, people tend to sit down, listen, tap a foot, perhaps, and, if it’s really working its magic, meaningfully relate the music to the memory of the dead person. Whether pop lyrics or piano concerto, our response is predominantly a private reaction within the mind, but we’re likely to be distanced from full interaction by the fact the sound is projected into the room by loud speakers. It’s from a different time and place.

Live music emanates from activity in the room. If it’s a hymn or song, we stand up and participate, granted with varying degrees of success. The result is unlikely to be as polished as the professional recording but it punches beyond its weight due to its resonance as a collective effort unifying participators—created in real time, not just imbibed in real time. It’s the same principle when people recommend family and friends carry the coffin themselves.

Imagine the hymn or song is led, not by an organist or pianist present at the funeral, but by a recorded musical accompaniment. Aside from bringing to mind karaoke, the full impact of live music is again diminished.

There’s also a case for live music performed by professionals, whether choir, string quartet or guitar-strumming solo-singer. Sure, the passive act of sitting down and listening to a performance doesn’t seem much different to doing the same for a recording. The difference is again that the musicians are sharing the moment. The chosen music might be universal but the rendition, flaws and all, is for the dead person and those present.

Footnote: I chose the image above of the iconic Glenn Gould as he exemplifies a pianist who brought his own unique style to music by the greats such as Bach. As the film below shows, Gould reminds us that the scores of composers are not diktats set in stone but are guides for artists who surprise with their interpretations of mood. Ironically, this cool, solitary genius hated performing concerts, preferring to record in a studio.


  1. Charles

    Couldn’t agree more about the power of live music. Unfortunately for most families, professionals work out expensive. Professional choirs seem to quote £300/£350, which seems to me quite a lot per crochet, though I guess they are likely to have to travel some distance.

    Which brings me to local community choirs. Out of Bangor Community Choir grew Threnody; we sing a capella, 3 or 4 part harmony, and we offer a choice of songs and hymns in English and Welsh. Sometimes we have enough warning to learn something new on request. And we only charge something for travel.

    (Sorry if you’ve read something like this before from me on the GFG but this isn’t just an advert, there is a wider point to be made.)

    We work hard to achieve a good standard; we are a natural voice choir, and I think that is actually an advantage. Beautiful though the produced voice is, it can, for many people, have a distancing effect – a performance. It’s associated, perhaps, with the concert hall and the opera. As Richard says here, the point about live music is that it is happening in the room, with the people, and we are “like” the congregation – local, ordinary.

    There seems to be something uniquely powerful about voices in harmony, with regards to releasing emotion, creating a space for people to feel what they feel, unlocking a numbed heart, perhaps.

    And we love it. I don’t mean we enjoy watching unhappy people in tears; I mean we love singing, and we love knowing it helps. Singing “The Parting Glass” for someone who always enjoyed a glass was a huge privilege; and you should hear a local congregation roaring through “Guide Me O Thou Great Redemeer” with us. (In England, I guess it would need to be “Swing Low Sweet Chariot!”) We’re singing their music for them.

    So we’re not The 16 or The Hilliard Ensemble, wonderful though it would be to hear them at a funeral near you. Neither are we unique, though I don’t know why there aren’t more Threnodies around the land. A city of any size probably has at least four community choirs these days; it would be wonderful if a community choir near you, wherever you are, could offer singing at funerals.

    If you’re a celebrant reading this, why not nip along to your local community choir and tell them it’s about time they were singing in a crem!

  2. Charles

    Singing: tick.
    Live music: tick.
    What’s missing? Dancing.

    I am serious. Unless we can take an embodied approach to purging our griefs, they will clog us up far longer than is necessary.

    It’s time to overturn all crushing strictures and taboos, and dance our way to joy and health. Foot-tapping’s just the start …

    1. Charles

      Lovely concept; do you think, Kathryn, if we said “movement” as opposed to “dancing,” we might make a start? So people don’t think we mean dancing like Fred Astaire or Darcy Bussell ?(i.e. “but I can’t dance.” “But you can move, we almost all can.”) And your point about dancing to health links in my mind with Kristie West’s point that sometines people hang on to the pain of grief, rather than doing things that will heal them and make them happy? Amongst which, at the top, come singing and dancing. Interesting how often bereaved people join a funeral choir – it’s not just the company. Usually they seem to be women; it’sd a shame more men don’t get involved, and I guess goes back to the inhibitions of male adolescence at school.

      1. Charles

        Yes, ‘movement’ is big and baggy and encouraging. I mean embodied connection with music/rhythm for getting some stuff expressed.

  3. Charles

    Its a fair point. Hymns are good. I love hymns. Despite an almost total rejection of Christian theology I do enjoy singing hymns. Sadly, I am getting quite tired of being the only person in the crematorium singing. Literally the only one. It can be quite embarrassing!
    We are very fortunate in having a guitar soloist who has offered his services for free. We are looking forward to the first time his services are needed!

  4. Charles

    Like Jennifer, I love to hear a good hymn, sung. If sung with gusto, it matters not the quality of the voice. I tend not to sing because I am rubbish at timing music wise.
    The problem is that I rarely get anyone who does more than mumble the hymn. I have had one funeral where they had ‘Jerusalem’ and the daughter of the deceased ( a former professional singer) belted it out. It was lovely. But she was the only one singing.
    The professional musicians at the crematoriums I work at moan about the karaoke hymns played on cd, and maybe they have a point. However, people like to listen to a hymn as well as sing it and the cd delivers this.
    The most moving hymn I ever had played was Rutter’s Distant Land – a prayer for Mandella. The sound system was good and you could see how everyone was moved by the music. Admitted it is not a mainstream hymn and people would not have known it, but it proved to me that you don’t have to have live to be good.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>