BEST SONGS FOR A CHRISTIAN FUNERAL
The funeral or memorial service serves many purposes. It’s a way for family and friends to say goodbye to a loved one. It’s a ritual that provides structure and comfort during a very tough period. It is also a way of remembering the life and memory of the person who passed away.
Music can support all these purposes as part of a funeral or memorial service. What makes music so strong is that it can perform many roles at once:
• MUSIC TAPS INTO OUR EMOTIONS
Music awakens our feeling in powerful ways. It has been an essential part of all recognized cultures throughout history and plays an important role in our civilization. Listening to music releases hormones and substances and stimulates the brain. Practically, this means that music evokes emotion and can set the mood for a funeral service. It can communicate feelings that words may not be able to express. Music can connect people with their grief, bring a moment of joy, uplift the spirit, or unblock feelings of sorrow.
• MUSIC OFFERS STRUCTURE AND RITUALS
Familiar music connects us to the ritual we grew up with. In many religious traditions, specific songs sung at times provide a sense of security and comfort. The lyrics of a song we’ve heard over and over remind us of something we learn. The familiarity and structure of the song can be comforting during a time of grief.
• MUSIC SENDS A MESSAGE
A song’s lyrics, melody, and harmonies convey a message to the funeral attendees. This could be a message of hope, faith, sadness, humor, or grief. Even though each person in the service hears the same song, each person will interpret the message a little differently. Thus, music allows both a communal experience and an individual experience to coexist at the same time.
• MUSIC BRINGS MEMORIES BACK
Music has a special way of accessing memories. Not only do we recall the lyrics to songs we learned a long time ago, but we also remember related incidents and emotions. Hearing a song the deceased loved may bring people back to a specific moment in time. Bringing up and sharing memories is a very significant aspect of the funeral service.
SELECTING THE MUSIC
Most people find it acceptable to incorporate a wide range of music in a funeral or memorial service, depending on how formal the service is. Songs of a specific religious practice, popular music, and unique instrumental music may all have their place.
A way to incorporate music into a funeral service is to pick the music that the deceased loved. Selecting music that was important to the deceased is a way of honoring and acknowledging the dead. Such songs are likely to bring memories back to the audience and reflect on the life that the deceased lived. Regardless of the kind of music he or she loved, there are ways to integrate those choices into the service.
Many people may be comforted and supported by traditional music from a specific religion or cultural tradition. The officiating minister is likely to have ideas as to which religious songs should be integrated into the service. Most religious practices may have specific rules as to what music is acceptable and what it is not. It is important to discuss your wishes in advance of the service. This also makes sense for people to incorporate music from their racial or cultural background.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PICKING A FUNERAL SONG
Music is very powerful and can give rise to strong emotions. Although expressing emotions at a funeral is safe, it is important to know how evocative music can be. Music choices should be made with caution, taking into account how mourners would feel. This may impact what songs are selected or the order in which they are used in the service. Songs of sorrow and sadness may be best early in the service, songs of remembrance in the middle, and songs with a message of hope at the end of the service.
Even if you think you know a song well, make sure you read and listen to the lyrics before deciding to use it for the funeral service. A song that had certain significance to you before can sound very different when it was played during a funeral.
It has become more popular to use humorous or light-hearted songs during a memorial service. Many people enjoy this shift from a ritual that focuses solely on mourning to one that celebrates the life that someone has lived. Uplifting or praising songs can change the mood of a memorial service. The decision to integrate non-traditional songs into the service is often influenced by the nature of the person who died and the circumstances surrounding his death. It is necessary to recognize the range of needs and feelings that attendees can bring to the service and be welcoming without being negative.
SPECIFIC RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS AND SONGS
Different religions have their traditions to incorporate music into the funeral service. A set of general recommendations are outlined below:
• CATHOLIC: Catholic services also include at least three songs. This is different from the funerary mass, which normally has pre-selected music. In less formal Catholic funerals or memorial services, families may be asked to select songs from the list provided.
• PROTESTANT: There are many traditions within the Protestant faith. Music is an important part of the ceremony in most Protestant traditions. Common funeral hymns could be sung.
• JEWISH: Music is not a traditional part of Jewish funeral service. The Rabbi or the Cantor may sing psalms, but other music is rarely permitted. If music is important to you, speak to your rabbi about ways to integrate music into other sections of the service.
In funeral service, as in any worship service, well-chosen music can help the sorrowful to lift their hearts to the God of all comfort. The group of mourners unites in song to express their sorrow and grief to the God of all comfort and rejoice in the gift of life to the person who died. With song, the mourners express the faith that is the foundation of their recovery and renewal in hopeful living.
The prayer song of mourning may begin with a shout, “I cried out to God to help me: in distress and sorrow, hear me” and crescendo to, “By the sea of crystal, saints in glory stand.” Following the song “Precious to God the dying of his saints” with “Ten thousand times ten thousand give glory to the Lamb,” can stir mourning hearts to hope.
The following principles can help the pastor, musicians, and family members to develop the funeral service:
EXPRESS BOTH GRIEF AND HOPE.
There are two purposes of music at a funeral. Both must be present, although the concentration on one or the other may depend on the situation. First of all, we need to express the reality of our loss, sadness, and pain at the death of the loved one before the God who sees and feels our sadness.
Second, we have to express the hope of believers in the equally great reality of eternal life and God’s coming Kingdom. We have to lift the mourners’ hearts to the clear message of this hope, even when it appears that the one who died was not a believer.
If the pastor and others who plan the service keep these two purposes clearly in mind, they will be able to choose music that helps the grieving family and community to look beyond the present hour to the eternal God. Such two goals are wonderfully accomplished, for example, in Henry F. Lyte’s famous “Abide with Me,” where the eternal presence of the Lord is found precisely in our sorrow. And Goerg Neumark hymn “IF YOU BUT TRUST IN GOD TO GUIDE YOU” recognizes our need and our confusion and guides us to the unchanging love of God.
ENSURE THE CORPORATE MUSIC PREDOMINATES.
Pastors who understand the importance of feeling and expressing grief as a believing community will promote congregational music during the funeral. Great comfort can be gained by the whole congregation singing hymns and psalms. Music and song may also be incorporated, wherever possible, in the many gatherings of a funeral: in the committal service, at the funeral home, and even during the customary fellowship hour following the service.
FOCUS ON GOD.
Music at a funeral is most effective when it focuses on God rather than on us. The sorrowful heart needs the assurance that lies in the knowledge of God’s sovereign grace, His constant keeping of covenant, and the rich knowledge of his people. “How Great Thou Art” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” are two favorite hymns, specifically because they give this genuine hope and comfort.
BALANCE FAMILY PREFERENCES WITH THE CONSIDERATIONS OF THE LARGER COMMUNITY.
Family members will also select songs that have been treasured by the deceased throughout their lives. Although using the deceased’s favorite songs can be a great place to start, a word of warning is in order: not all of these songs can give the required comfort or direct the heart to God. They may be only slightly related to our current understanding of both sadness and hope.
Hymns or anthems that really comfort us and enable us to grieve lift us from the absolute depths of sadness to reality. Family and personal preferences should complement the communal songs of the church, which reside mainly in the pew hymnal. Family’s preferences should be taken into consideration, but also surround them with the song of the church of all ages.
INVOLVE THE CHOIR.
If a choir actively participates in congregational worship, they should be encouraged, if possible, to assemble also for a funeral service. The choral offering of songs provides a gift from the congregation to the mourning families and the community. The choir does not have to sing an elaborate anthem; it might be very appropriate to sing one stanza of the congregational hymns. For example, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” can only be sung with a choir in the second stanza.
If the choir is to participate, those responsible for the service planning must recognize that choir rehearsal and preparation require special coordination. And because of the demands of work and other activities, planners should recognize that the time of service may have to be changed to allow a good balance of singers to be present (late afternoons or evenings may be more suitable for a larger number of singers). Soloists or groups of singers should be aware that they express not only their feelings but also expressing the praise and prayer of the assembled community.
PLAN FOR THE ACOUSTICAL SETTING.
During the process of preparing the musical aspect of the service, Acoustics should not be forgotten. Usually, the acoustics are much better in a church than in a funeral home. If the service is held in the funeral home, carpets and other sound-absorbing decorations can present unique barriers to singing. Also, instruments may not be adequate to support congregational singing or to accompany choirs or soloists.
But even if the acoustic atmosphere for the funeral is bad, the people gathered should sing. Recorded music should be discouraged as a replacement for singing; sorrow and hope should come from those present. The worshiper must be able to give sincere prayer to God.
LEAD WITH STRENGTH AND FAITH.
In the setting of a culture that denies death and its reality, it is not surprising that we generally believe that funeral music should be quiet, weak-sounding and slow-moving, and that triumphant sounds are inappropriate. The reality of a Christian is that while death is the last enemy, it is no longer a strong enemy through Christ. Death marks the entrance of the believer into everlasting life. So, while the grief and loss of those left behind are real, the dead’s triumphant home-going should also be reflected in the way music is used. Mourners do not benefit from slow, indecisive singing or accompaniment. They’re looking for firm and confident assurance. At the Christian funeral, psalms and hymns aren’t sung to cover up the pain or distract the grief from death’s reality. The style of playing and singing that we use for each hymn or psalm should be suitable for its content and setting. Triumphant hymns should be performed and sung in the spirit in which they were composed. When praising God for the life and gifts of the person who has been taken or for the confidence we have in God’s everlasting promises, let both the organ and the congregation play and sing appropriately. Even hymns or psalms that directly express grief shouldn’t lack strength or confidence.
FIVE BEST CHRISTIAN FUNERAL SONGS
1. “BROKEN HALOS” BY CHRIS STAPLETON
“Broken Halos” is a beautiful Christian funeral song that reminds us that angels cannot live with us forever. In one line Christ Stapleton sings, “Angels come down from the heavens / just to help us on our way / Come to teach us, then they leave us and they find some other soul to save”
2. “AMAZING GRACE” BY ALAN JACKSON
“Amazing Grace” is a recognized funeral song across the world, and it can be a great choice, particularly if you want people to be able to sing along with it. Alan Jackson does a wonderful rendition.
3. “IF HEAVEN WASN’T SO FAR AWAY” BY JUSTIN MOORE
In “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” Justin Moore sings of all the things he’d do to his deceased loved ones if he could visit them in Heaven. The song ends with, “Losing them wouldn’t be so hard to take / If heaven wasn’t so far away.”
4. ALAN JACKSON’S “HOW GREAT THOU ART”
This is a Christian funeral song by a country music singer, “How great Thou art” focuses on God’s greatness. He sings,” When Christ shall come / with a shout of acclamation/ and take me home / what joy shall fill my heart / Then I shall bow / in humble adoration.”
5. “I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN” BY WESTLIFE”
“I’ll see you again” was released by the Irish pop band Westlife in 2009. The band’s lead singer mentioned his deep Christian faith, and some of this comes through in the lyrics of the songs. The chorus begins with, “I’ll see you again / you never really left / I feel you walk beside me I know I’ll see you again.”