My family are big-time music lovers, each with their own preferences. But when I planned funerals for my dear Italian grandmother and my own father, it wasn’t yet a trend to play nontraditional music at a funeral service.
For my grandmother, it was all about tradition. I chose her favorites, both religious and cultural, including “On Eagle’s Wings,” the devotional song written by Michael Joncas, and the ever beautiful “Ave Maria.”Tears were shed and she was honored. Mission accomplished.
When my dad died, however, selecting the music was a very different experience. Dad was only 60 years old, and if there was one thing he loved, it was a good party. Whether it was an exclusive event or a small celebration at home, he would often finish the night saying, “I’m glad I was invited to that one!”
Cool Music at a Funeral Service? Um, yeah!
I wanted Dad’s funeral to be a party he’d be happy to attend. But I was going out on a bit of limb since—besides that funeral scene in “The Big Chill” where they play The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—it wasn’t yet really a thing to play pop music at a funeral service. Well, I’ve always been a little different, and for me, it was really important to personalize the whole event to reflect my dad’s exuberant spirit.
It’s Okay to Switch Up Styles
Dad was eccentric and his taste in music varied widely. He’d spend hours either tapping his foot to John Coltrane, mellowing out with James Taylor, or all-out boogying to The Rolling Stones. I wanted to incorporate all his musical moods, so I opted for different moods at different moments. Example: we started with a mixed playlist of jazz greats as people entered the funeral home. That immediately told those arriving this was a unique celebration.
The chapel was packed with my father’s friends, loved ones and co-workers, and there were lots of tears during the funeral service. But after the speeches, I cued up Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” When that unmistakable drumbeat rang throughout the room, I saw people look up, surprised for a second, then breaking into genuine smiles. Some of his buddies got up and imitated his quirky dance stylings right in the aisle between the pews. It was charming and unforgettable and totally Dad.
Music is Memory. And Magic.
Later, at the luncheon that followed the service, I wanted “mingle music”—you know, a tapestry of background songs that make you feel good as you move around, greeting people and sharing stories. So I made a playlist of soft rock—Carole King, Elton John, Phil Collins—you name it! I could see people noticing a song here and there that reminded them of my dad, and it sparked more smiles, jokes and conversations.
For my sweet, fun, cool father, we chose a variety of music for all aspects of the celebration—evoking different emotions and moods. None of it was really what you would consider “funeral music,” and why should it have been? While I’m absolutely certain Dad would’ve been delighted he was “invited,” I most appreciated knowing that others were recalling moments of joy they shared with him. Let the music you choose for any farewelling you’re planning create mood, memory, joy and yes, magic.
Click [here] for more about how to personalize a farewelling for you or your loved one.
Elizabeth Meyer Karansky is a licensed Funeral Director, Thanatology Fellow and Farewelling's Funeral Guru. She lives with her husband in New York City.