Every life has a soundtrack—songs that echo the depth of our love and remind us of our loved ones.
Every life has a soundtrack. Music fills our most memorable days, from the familiar strains of wedding or graduation songs to the favorite albums we listen to alone. The beat may go on even after death, so long as our loved ones have songs to remember us by.
What songs do you remember loved ones by? Here are 11 of our favorite funeral songs that are often used to honor a life story. Add your favorites in the comments.
Music connects us across time and space, taking us back to unforgettable moments in the past. When silky-voiced Nat King Cole recorded “Unforgettable” in 1951, listeners immediately began adopting the song into the soundtracks of their memories. When his daughter Natalie Cole sang a virtual duet of “Unforgettable” with her father (the first such feat) in 1991, she touched a nerve; the song won three Grammys, including Song of the Year. Cole followed her father in death in December 2015, but the song is sure to remain a favorite for honoring those who will never lose their place in your heart. See obituaries that mention the song.
“Wind Beneath My Wings”
One feeling that may accompany grief is the comfort of knowing a loved one’s influence will stay with you all your life. Bette Midler’s classic “Wind Beneath My Wings,” recorded in 1989 for the movie “Beaches,” is the perfect expression of gratitude and love for many. It reminds us that the deceased will continue to have a presence that lets us “fly higher than an eagle.” Many obituaries quote the song’s moving lyrics.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord”
Composed by Thomas Dorsey following the death of his wife and first child during childbirth, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is a gospel classic that was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, and by Aretha Franklin at Jackson’s funeral in 1972. It continues to be a traditional choice to provide solace to the bereaved at funerals. Here, Mahalia Jackson performs the song in 1961:
“Soon and Very Soon”
Another gospel favorite, Andrae Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon” is often used to set a hopeful tone at the end of a funeral. The song was performed as Michael Jackson’s casket was carried in at his public memorial service. When Crouch passed away in 2015, the song was sung at his own Celebration of Life by Stevie Wonder. Here, Crouch, as great a performer as he was a composer, performs a rousing rendition:
Dr. Dre’s “The Message,” a tribute to Dre’s deceased brother Tyree, features the voice of Mary J. Blige as well as powerful rhymes by Dr. Dre himself.
New Orleans Jazz
It’s less a specific song and more a very specific genre, but for a jazz aficionado, or someone who hails from New Orleans, the most appropriate funeral music might be a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. Tapping into the early influence of brass parade bands on jazz, the music begins as a solemn, restrained march that acknowledges the grief family and friends are feeling for their lost loved one. Then, the music quickens and becomes jubilant, inspiring dancing, singing and improvisation: a joyful celebration of a life well lived.
Jazz funerals have become less common in New Orleans in recent years, but musician Allen Toussaint’s 2015 funeral shone a spotlight on the form:
According to U.K.-based Co-Op Funeralcare, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is heard at one in every seven funerals. Why is it so popular? Perhaps because we can imagine the deceased him or herself assuring us that “I’ve lived a life that’s full, traveled each and every highway, but more, more than this, I did it my way.” Read obituaries in which family and friends share how the song connects them to loved ones they’ve lost.
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”
For someone who had a sharp sense of humor, something more tongue-in-cheek might be more appropriate. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a relentlessly irreverent but at the same time uplifting tune is a surprisingly popular choice at funerals. And as hundreds of obituaries reveal, the ability to look on the bright side of life is a quality that family and friends cherish long after a loved one is gone.
“Candle in the Wind”
After the death of Princess Diana, Elton John re-worked “Candle in the Wind,” originally a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, to honor Diana at her funeral. In either its original or updated version, it makes a beautiful funeral song for anyone who shone brightly through life’s struggles.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
This classic song, originally written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” captures that optimistic yearning that there is someplace where dreams can come true. It’s a popular funeral song choice not only for nostalgic reasons, but because no matter what our individual beliefs about an afterlife may be, we hope our loved ones are in a place of happiness “where troubles melt like lemon drops.”
“To My Old Brown Earth”
“To My Old Brown Earth” is a song sung from the point of view of the recently departed. It is a heartfelt and straightforward appeal to friends and loved ones to remain strong and take care of the natural world of which the singer is now a part.