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Home > Music

Funeral music

15 August 2003

A regular at my local pub was talking about my jukebox choices this week. She was recently bereaved, and berated me for my 'sad' selections. She wanted something upbeat in the dank boozer, she explained, like her choices for her husband's funeral earlier this year.

Some of these were surprising. Especially 'Another one bites the dust'. It wasn't until I grasped that her husband had died of emphysema that I understood why she'd gone for 'Take my breath away'. "But if there'd been any Christians there," she said conspiratorially, "I could've said it was God took his breath away."

There was also a story about how his best friend's widow came to the service wearing stockings and suspenders, but that genuinely isn't what interested ACME. What interested ACME was the point Where Music And Funerals Meet. There are songs set at funerals, like Smog's amazing 'Dress sexy at my funeral'. There are songs where the lead singer wants to initiate a funeral, like 'Delilah' and 'Hey Joe' and 'I did what I did for Maria'.

And then there are the involved ones, like Paul Morley's description of Kraftwerk: 'voices that sound like the recently-departed heard on an answer machine', and responses to funerals like M. Ward's (see TFT 11-07-03).

And yet none of these are the kind of thing actually played at funerals. My own experience of funerals is of Scottish songs, hymns and paeans to justice. But this isn't normal. ACME presents for you some thoughts on the Co-Op's annual survey of the "Pearly Greats" - the most popular songs at British funerals.

There is an element of durvey in the Co-Op's polling methods, but a representative year's choices still make you sit up and take notice (the deceased excepted).

*

10) 'Bright eyes'
9) 'Strangers in the night'

Already we're in Weirdsville, Jack. A song about dead rabbits? Written by a man who composed for litter-collecting cryptozoological freaks? The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss investigated the meanings of such social rituals as funerals. What would he make of marking human deaths by recalling the bunnies who never escaped Efrafa?

I suspect he'd like it, or at least more than he'd like sending one's dearest away to the strains of 'Strangers in the night', Bert Kaempfert's tribute to "two lonely people" enjoying a quickie one-night-stand.

Personally, I'm also glad to see 'Bright eyes' in there, because Paul Simon is an Enemy Of ACME, and he probably hopes that 'Bridge over troubled water' is a funereal favourite. It's not. Here's a fun exercise, suggested by Giles Smith: listen to that song, replacing all the "I"s with "He"s, and see how Simon took a gospel form and made Himself the God of the song. And no 'Imagine' in the list either.


8) 'Memory'

Okay, so Lévi-Strauss is just getting over the rabbits. But now Cats. A few notes on this pretty tune, added at the last minute to Lloyd-Webber's musical. The T. S. Eliot estate, notoriously protective of their property, made an exception for the jaunty Lloyd-Webber-Nunn musical. But two weeks before opening, it was still missing something. So L-W recycled an old melody, and Nunn added a lyric based on Eliot's 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night' (Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum, and through the spaces of the dark, midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium.). The song was given to Grizabella, the Glamour Cat. How you'd like your mum to be remembered? You decide.


Remark the cat who hesitates toward you
In the light of the door which opens on her like a grin

You see the border of her coat is torn and stained with sand
And you see the corner of her eye twist like a crooked pin

She haunted many a low resort
Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court
She flitted about the No Man's Land
From "The Rising Sun" to "The Friend at Hand"

And the postman sighed as he scratched his head
"You'd really had thought she ought to be dead."

And who would ever suppose that
That was Grizabella, the Glamour Cat?



7) 'Release Me'
6) 'You'll never walk alone'
5) 'My way'

Here's where the primary quality for a funeral kicks in: Quality. They're all slow songs. They've all been sung by men in suits. Because you want your send-off to be Dead Classy Like. 'You'll never walk alone' can be forgiven for its Liverpool FC connection, but its original context is again odd - it's from Carousel, where Julie returns home to find her miscreant husband has stabbed himself. She holds his dying body in her arms and seeks inspiration. 'My way', by contrast, is one of the most egomaniacal songs ever written (second only to #4), and it sure wouldn't have made it to funerals in its original French (J'irai me coucher dans ce grand lit froid / Comme d'habitude / Mes larmes, je les cacherai / Comme d'habitude) and we have no real beef with it. Worst of the entire list is 'Release me' (except, again, #4). A cloying country ballad sung by a Midlands engineer in a tux? A song where love is a prison? A song centred on I have found a new love, my dear, and I will always want her near - her lips are warm, while yours are cold? Above and beyond everything else, a song whose melody is the theme to The Fast Show? The last thing you want people thinking when they're trying to look sombre is 'suits you, Sir'. And no 'Let it be' in the list.


4) 'Search for the hero'

If you thought Humperdinck was Fake-Class, then howsabout this? The 'quality' here is based on three awful cheating signifiers. First, Heather Small sings high. The worst kind of vocalists and instrumentalists think that playing higher notes is more difficult and therefore 'better'. (And Small is off-key.) The practice has its origins in a bizzaro-religious idea of music as close to God. It's over. Second, the video for the song was effectively that car advert, which was in classy monochrome. And its images were iconic. Both of which make it meaningful. Sheesh. Why not just stick Athena postcards of 'L'Enfant' over the coffin? And finally, its inspirational lyric. The song tells of bad times, but then "faith arrives". And this faith is in you and only you alone. Worse still than 'Bridge over troubled water', this is another ego-trip of a song - a tribute to selfishness. It is the sign of a sick and dirty culture that this counts as spiritual.


(used 40p)


(used from 1.99)

3) 'Wind beneath my wings'
2) 'Candle in the wind'

And what is it with wind? And why don't Ultravox, Hendrix or the Prodigy benefit from it? 'Wind beneath my wings' has a charming oddness, in admitting your lover is your hero. Not many songs do that. And again, Lévi-Strauss sees that the stories that influence us the most are those made in Hollywood. This song may have been written by a trainee pilot, but it's Hillary's death in Beaches that gets it into the crematoria of the land. And rightly so. 'Candle...', however, is plain wrong. It's about a young gay man in a cinema admiring a sex goddess for something more than her looks. Or it's about how a debutante had her fast life cut short. It has nothing to do with the lives and deaths of you and me. And no 'Angels' in the list. Nor 'Angel'.


(used from 1.99)

1) 'My heart will go on'

Again with the Hollywood. We don't tell each other death myths anymore. We have them given us by businessmen. Still, this song is at least about an unbroken spiritual link.

In summary, then, we have:

Songs from stories where things die: 6
Songs where the dead person died a wreck: 3
Self-empowerment: 2
Sex: 1
God, etc.: 0

But there again, with heart disease Britain's biggest killer, claiming 400 lives a day, #1 seems insensitive. Why not just go for 'What becomes of the broken-hearted?' or 'There must be an angel (Playing with my heart)'?


(used from 1.99)


...and you know where this facetious line is going, I presume. Your suggested funeral songs would be very welcome for our own poll. We promise to send the results to the Co-Op as a corrective and to reward the finest emails. livinginabox@thefridaything.co.uk



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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