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Music for Funerals and Memorial Services

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Music has played a role in funerals since ancient times.

Q. When my time comes, I would like to have music played at my funeral. Is music acceptable at services in all religions? Can you suggest some appropriate choices?

Music has played a role in funerals since ancient times when survivors chanted to appease the spirits. Ancient Roman funeral processions included both mimes and musicians, and New Orleans jazz funerals reach back to Africa. (Think “When the Saints Go Marching In.”) Dancing follows the burial of the deceased to release tension and restore the spirit. At the Augusta, Georgia, funeral of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, over 9,000 people danced to music played by his band.

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Catholic funerals recognize the power of music, such as “Amazing Grace” or “Ave Maria” and other sacred selections, to console mourners and allow them to connect with and express profound emotions. The choir sang psalms at the funeral mass for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Meaningful selections are made in consultation with the pastor. Although secular songs are not permitted at the funeral, they are suitable after the vigil service or at a gathering after burial.

At other churches, funeral music may range from hymns or anthems to patriotic or pop music, such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Elton John performed a version of “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Princess Diana, Music by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Handel, or others, are classical favorites. Songs and hymns may be sung by assembled mourners, a choir, or a soloist.

In a sign of the times, some funerals and memorial services have become less traditional and somber. They may be called “celebrations of life,” where almost anything goes. A 2014 survey of over 30,000 funerals found only 30 percent of requests for funeral music involved hymns (led by “Abide by Me”). Frank Sinatra and “My Way” ranked fifth in popularity. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” placed ninth.

Because music is associated with festivity and happiness, it is not typical at Jewish funerals or memorial services. Music isn’t found at Muslim funerals, either, such as the services for the world champion boxer Muhammad Ali.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Eulogies. She writes two advice blogs for Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners. Have a question for Florence? Send her an email