Music Selections for a Humanist Funeral

By Steve Major

Recently there was a very interesting and popular article in HNN about what to say to a grieving humanist, since so many sympathetic phrases in western society contain platitudes about loved ones being “in a better place” or of their death being “part of God’s plan.”

One result of that discussion was a spinoff thread about what music a nontheist has available to them for a funeral or for times of mourning. Depending on how stringent ones standards are that their music not contain any references to heaven, Jesus, God, or angels, there aren’t a lot of choices left for songs that are still appropriate in both tone and content; at that point most sad songs tend to be about the end of romantic relationships (like the wonderful, almost-but-not-quite funeral appropriate, For The Good Times by Johnny Cash).

The most prominent pop music funeral songs are ones like In The Arms Of an Angel by Sarah McLaughlin (as seen on those animal rights commercials) and Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton, which invite the listener to take solace in the idea that their loved one is in heaven which, alas, just isn’t a choice for us humanists.

Other songs that are not about God or heaven, but incorporate them in some way, can still strike a false cord during the stressful and emotionally heightened time following a loved one’s death. Examples of that include Fire and Rain, by James Taylor, which is a beautiful song about loss, which would qualify for this list were it not for the lyric “Won’t you look down upon me Jesus.” Or Seasons In The Sun, by Terry Jacks, which contains the lyric “Goodbye Papa, please pray for me.”

It is unfortunate that the band Kansas was actually very religious, but their song Dust In The Wind is a time honored end of life classic that doesn’t make any mention of religion, except insofar as it’s predicated on the “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” portion of the book of common prayer. Another popular funeral song that implies a religious connotation rather than overtly stating one is the Eva Cassidy version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Presumably what’s over the rainbow is heaven, although I suppose it’s possible that after we die we get transported to Oz and turned into flying monkeys.

The humanist funeral song conversation got started on our Facebook Page with the posting of a song called Stop All The Clocks by Nemo Shaw. The lyrics are from the W.H. Auden poem, Funeral Blues. It’s not bad, albeit sung in a slightly distracting Scottish accent, with what I thought was an unfortunate emphasis on the lyrics “juicy bone” and “He is dead.” The website very helpfully provides three different options in which the singer can either refer to the deceased as “he” “she” or “they.”

There’s also the Dennis Wilson song Thoughts Of You which is an astoundingly heartfelt song of loss from the now deceased former drummer of The Beach Boys, with nary an allusion to anything remotely religious. If my colleagues at the American Humanist Association should need to throw me an ad hoc funeral, this is the song I would like them to play.

When Paul Simon was asked to play a song at the ten year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, he was originally scheduled to play Bridge Over Troubled Water, but changed at the last minute to The Sound Of Silence. Neither is explicitly about someone dying, but both are somber and moving songs loss and comfort, and therefore I think very appropriate.

In that same vein I would also suggest Across The Universe by The Beatles. It isn’t quite as sad, but that’s sort of nice, isn’t it? It’s also been covered a hundred times, so you’ll have no trouble finding a version that speaks to the tone you like best. The Fiona Apple version is very pretty, as is the version from the movie of the same name. The lyrics suggest to me that we’re all made of star-stuff and interconnected, without being theistic about it. Purists be warned though, it does contain the Sanskrit phrase “Jai guru deva om” which translates more or less to “glory to the shining remover of darkness.”

Johnny Cash did a wonderful cover of In My Life, by The Beatles, which is a perfect song in every way.

My favorite cinematic funeral scene ever is from Love Actually, in which a grieving husband adheres to his wife’s final wishes, and ends the ceremony “inevitably, and ever so cruelly… through the immortal genius of the Bay City Rollers.” But that isn’t something I would recommend unless specifically instructed to do so by the guest of honor.

Perhaps you would prefer an instrumental piece, such as the Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak by Edvard Grieg; Dead March from Saul‘ by Handel; or The Gray Havens from the Return of The King soundtrack.

My mother, an opera fan, recommends Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (also available in instrumental), and Violetta’s Deathbed Aria from Verdi’s La Traviata. I’ll also suggest E lucevan le stelle from Tosca, and the Final Duet from La Boheme, both by Puccini. I don’t speak Italian or German though, so if they’re making any religious references I’m none the wiser.

The Broadway musical Les Miserables is filled with exquisite death scenes, but Fantine’s Death; A Little Fall Of Rain; and The Finale all come heavily laden with references to God. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables could be appropriate for a funeral under some fairly specific circumstances. The Letter from Billy Elliot would be beautiful performed live with personalized lyrics. So would It Don’t Make Sense from Parade.

Or if you prefer to look on the bright side of life, you can certainly do that too (particularly if your funeral isn’t really justified yet).

I’m sure I’ve only started to scratch the surface of songs appropriate for a humanist funeral. If you’ve got another one, leave a link in the comments section!

Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association.