It’s surprising how much a musical selection can affect mourning.
My grandmother’s funeral, held 13 years ago this month, was a long and emotional ceremony, but a lot of it is a blur to me now. There’s just one thing I remember vividly, and that’s struggling to get through singing the Lutheran hymn, “For All the Saints,” Grandma’s favorite. I broke down at the lyric, “And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,” and more than a decade later, I still can’t even think of those words, or the tune of the hymn, without tearing up.
That’s normal, says Frank Joyce of Joyce Funeral Home in Waltham, Massachusetts. “You’re supposed to tear up, even 13 years later. You never close the book on loving someone.”
Music affects us with a power that not even psychologists and neurologists can fully explain. For many of us who have lost a loved one, music acts as a catalyst that lets us continue to feel and express our grief. I’ve thought and talked about my grandmother a lot recently: I cooked some of her recipes, visited the farm she lived on, and told my friends about her special talent for writing squeaky-clean limericks. But in all those memories, the only time I got emotional was when I thought about singing “For All the Saints” at her funeral service.
That’s no surprise: Funerals and music are almost inextricably linked. For huge numbers of funerals — not in every faith tradition, but in many — music is typically sprinkled throughout the ceremonies in which we remember lives, and it serves many purposes.
“Silence can be deafening,” Joyce notes, “and music fills the void.” Which is to say: When we’re deep in grief and can’t find the words to express it, we can turn to music to speak for us. That can be through the songs that were the deceased’s favorites — like the Led Zeppelin song I heard at a recent funeral, which helped us remember the spirit of the man who’d wanted it played. But even songs we don’t already know can elicit surprising emotions. Joyce Funeral Home often chooses the music that will be played at a service, in an effort to unburden the family from having to make too many decisions at a difficult time.
“Those are songs you wouldn’t think of asking us to play,” Joyce notes, “but listening to those words at the funeral, they’re very powerful.” He’s identified some songs that are particularly effective at encouraging mourning. One of them is “Going Home” by Mary Fahl — not a widely-known song, but one that he sees people responding to, even as they hear it for the first time while they grieve.
Part of that is the song’s lyrics: “Surely sorrows shall find their end/And all our troubles will be gone/And I’ll know what I’ve lost, and all that I’ve won/When the road finally takes me home.” But there’s more to the power of music than the words we sing or listen to. Chord changes, crescendos, quiet moments and epic sweeps all come together to loosen the tight hold we normally have on our emotions and allow the tears to flow.
Renee Wilson, a professional harpist who’s provided music for funerals for the past 25 years, finds that the mood in a room can shift quickly as she plays. When she reaches the perfect musical selection, she says, “The conversation in the room gets easier. People relax a little bit.” Interestingly, she says, the wrong piece can have the opposite effect, causing mourners to subtly tense up, and she’ll move on to something else. The mourners themselves, she says, usually don’t consciously register the shift — but the music she plays has the power to affect the way they feel, and she strives to use that power for good, to help them express their grief.
One moment in the course of the ritual she finds particularly powerful, she says, is when most people have left and just the family remains, gathering close to their loved one for a final time. “Frequently, I will stay and play really quietly in the corner, far away from the family,” she says, “while they have their last moments with their loved one.” Rather than leaving them in silence, she gives them a bit more music to ease their transition into life without their loved one: “It’s a real honor to be able to be there at that moment and to help make it as nice as it can be.”
There’s no one kind of music that can accomplish this crucial component of a funeral — encouraging us to mourn. Music at funerals runs the gamut from hymns to classical music to traditional tunes to rock songs. Some funerals feature live musicians; others rely on recorded music. Some sing hymns together, while others are more comfortable listening to music. But in whatever form we experience music at funerals, we’re tapping into something primal, something that predates civilization itself, to soothe our sorrow.
Wilson mentions new research that suggests prehistoric humans may have developed singing even before we developed speaking. “I think the reason we want music at funerals,” she continues, “is because it reaches back to something innate in all of us that touches us. And that’s what we hope for. We want to gather and remember that person, and we want comfort — and music is just the natural choice.”