The relationship between funerals and music is incredibly powerful. Funeral songs can provide family and friends a sense of peace and comfort at a difficult time. Often the songs selected for a funeral or memorial service are spiritual and speak to the deceased’s faith in God. Here are 10 of the most beloved religious songs played or performed at funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life.
1. “Amazing Grace” (LeAnn Rimes)
Written in 1772 by English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807), the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular songs of all time. The hymn carries a simple yet beautiful message about forgiveness and redemption through the mercy of God, and has been recorded by many popular artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and LeAnn Rimes.
2. “Three Wooden Crosses” (Randy Travis)
“Three Wooden Crosses” was a No. 1 hit for country singer Randy Travis in 2003. Written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson, the song tells the story of four people riding a midnight bus. When the bus crashes, a dying preacher gives a blood-stained Bible to the lone survivor, a prostitute. She goes on to find God and pass the Bible along to her son, who is now a preacher.
3. “My Sweet Lord” (George Harrison)
The first solo single George Harrison (1943–2001) put out after the Beatles turned out to be his most popular, selling over 10 million copies. The song expresses a desire to have a relationship with God: “I really want to know you / Really want to go with you / Really want to show you, Lord, that it won’t take long, my Lord.” Harrison, himself a follower of the Hindu sect Hare Krishna, draws on multiple religious traditions, combining part of the Hare Krishna mantra with the Judeo-Christian word of praise, “Hallelujah,” to create a simple and universal spiritual message.
4. “Dancing in the Sky” (Dani and Lizzy)
Canadian pop music duo Dani and Lizzy had a viral hit song on YouTube in 2013 with “Dancing in the Sky.” Lizzy wrote the song about a friend who passed away at a young age: “I hope you’re dancing in the sky / And I hope you’re singing in the angels’ choir / And I hope the angels know what they have / I’ll bet it’s so nice up in heaven since you’ve arrived.” The song has become popular at religious funerals, and the video currently has over 24 million views.
5. “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
Written by Leonard Cohen (1934–2016), “Hallelujah” initially wasn’t a success. Then other artists, like John Cale and Jeff Buckley, began to cover it, and the song’s popularity grew. (Currently there are more than 300 recorded versions of the song.) In “Hallelujah,” Cohen references many biblical stories and figures, including Samson and Delilah, King David, and Bathsheba: “Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Leonard Cohen wrote around 80 verses for the song and sometimes sang different lyrics in live performances.
6. “Soon and Very Soon” (Andrae Crouch)
Gospel music legend Andrae Crouch (1942–2015) sings about believing in God in his popular 1976 song. God will give you the strength to get through tough times and you will see him in heaven. As the powerful refrain repeats, “Soon and soon, we are going to see the king.”
7. “Broken Halos” (Chris Stapleton)
Chris Stapleton won a Grammy for best country song in 2018 for “Broken Halos,” a song Stapleton says was inspired by “people who have passed away before their time.” With a style that is more Southern gospel folk rock than country, “the song offers a tender, lump-in-your-throat reminder to keep the faith, even in the midst of tragedy,” says Rolling Stone writer Chris Parton. “Angels appear to help us on our way, Stapleton sings, but when their job is done they leave. . . and we’re not meant to understand why.”
8. “Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There” (Jennifer Hudson)
Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson performs a powerful version of the gospel standard on her 2008 debut album. The lyrics are about about Christians returning home to Jesus when they pass away: “Jesus, He promised me a home over there / Jesus promised me a home over there / No more sickness, sorrow, pain, care / He promised me a home over there.”
9. “Rock of Ages” (Aretha Franklin)
“Rock of Ages” is a traditional Christian hymn written by Rev. Augustus Toplady in 1763. As the story behind the hymn goes, Toplady was traveling through a gorge in England when he was caught in a dangerous storm. He took shelter in a gap in the rocks, and while riding out the storm, was inspired to write the hymn. The lyrics state that when you feel alone, God is like a rock and will not abandon you. “While I draw this fleeting breath / When mine eyes shall close in death / When I soar to worlds unknown / See Thee on Thy judgement throne / Rock of Ages, cleft for me / Let me hide myself in Thee.” Here Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) performs the hymn at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
10. “Angels Among Us” (Alabama)
Alabama is one of the most successful bands in the history of country music, combining country and Southern rock with pop and gospel. Their 1993 song “Angels Among Us” is about dearly departed loved ones in heaven guiding us through difficult times: “Oh, I believe there are angels among us / Sent down to us from somewhere up above / They come to you and me in our darkest hours / To show us how to live / To teach us how to give / To guide us with a light of love.” Alabama lead singer Randy Owen performed the song at the funeral of of his friend Dale Earnhardt (1951–2001).