Funeral music

Guy Pierce / 05 October 2015

How to pick music and choose the right songs for a loved one's funeral or memorial service.



Choosing music for a funeral ceremony is a fine balance between how the deceased would like to be remembered and how relatives and friends remember them.

Obviously it is down to the organisers but there are certain considerations to bear in mind, not least any instructions in a will or other document.

When is music played at funerals?

Music is traditionally played with the entry of the coffin to the church/crematorium, some mid-way through the service and at the very end of the service, with the mourners seated and/or as they depart the ceremony.

Whatever the music, each piece should really be no longer than three minutes. The average service last 30 minutes, and with three pieces of music, that’s a third of the ceremony accounted for. People’s attention will start to drift if it’s much longer.

Choosing the music for a funeral

The music should best reflect the person’s taste and even lifestyle.

If the deceased specified a certain piece(s) of music to be played then their wishes should be adhered to as close as possible. It may be stated in their will.

For example, if the deceased was a Captain Beefheart fan would he/she really want Frank Sinatra’s My Way played at the end? However, even the deceased would have realised that Trout Mask Replica would be asking too much, but a shorter song that wouldn’t distract the mourners unfamiliar with Beefheart’s work could be accommodated.

Take some time to think about the music to be played if there is no specific direction from the deceased.

Funeral songs

My Way and Monty Python’s Bright Side of Life are fixtures in the Top Ten funeral music chart and it’s easy enough to think, ‘Oh well, they’ll do’. But a little thought about the music can make the occasion so much more an event that has the departed’s personality etched on it.

Do you need CDs or downloads?

If you are using recorded music, you must have the original CDs from which the track will be taken.

Play the tracks to yourself before you hand them over to the crematorium or funeral director. Write down the tracks and the order in which they are to be played.

Most crematoriums can download music from the internet.  If they do, then ask that you hear the music beforehand so that it’s the right version of the song. Again, that might appear an obvious thing to do but funerals are a time when every detail needs the ‘belt and braces’ treatment.

Ensure you know the correct title of the piece and the artist concerned for whoever is publishing the order of service.

Regarding music being played at the funeral, a spokesman for Public Performance Licencing says, “Any recorded music being played when there is an audience entirely comprised of friends and/or family (such as a funeral) does not require a PPL licence.”

It might be a nice touch to 'burn' a CD of the music being played at the service and include it in the order of service booklet. However, the PPL advises, “PRS for Music operates a joint licence with PPL for this copying activity. The Limited Manufacture licence is based on the amount of music per CD/DVD and the number of copies produced.”

Visit www.prsformusic.com, or call 0207 534 1070 Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm. 

Some crematoriums do also have their own arrangements with PPL and PRS for Music for the production of CDs/DVDs, so check first before purchasing a Limited Manufacture licence.

Organising live music for a funeral

If you choose to have live music, there are elements to consider.

Performances by friends or family

It may be that a friend of the deceased wishes to sing or play. While this is always appreciated, try to ensure that they will be emotionally prepared for the occasion. Volunteering their services in the heat of the moment is generous in spirit, but come the day and the high emotion, are you sure that they will be able to carry the piece off? An overwrought singer/performer can be disturbing for the mourners.

And be honest, however well-meaning the friend, they may not actually be any good. A degree of tact is required to let them down gently. You don’t want any ill-feeling to mar proceedings even before the service has taken place.

Think carefully about child performers. While grandchildren may have had a close affinity with the deceased, are they mature enough to handle the occasion? Consider the pressure they may feel they are under.

There may be a lack of the personal element in hiring a professional artist but if it is more about the sentiment of the music than the talent of the performer, however their closeness to the deceased, this is a sensible option to consider.

Professional performers

Professional singer, Marianne Lihannah www.funeralsinger.net has sung at family funerals for the past eight years. The mezzo-soprano says, ‘I try to be as accommodating as possible. It’s a time when what people ask and say can be quite erratic. They are in a vulnerable place. A piece of music is often an integral part of the service, not just the icing on the cake.

Marianne performs at both religious and humanist ceremonies and advises that song choice ’ can be tricky, as some songs are not suited to, say, a church setting.’ She often guides clients towards a link between the deceased and a certain song. If there is Scottish blood in the family, My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose seems a natural choice in any setting.

The cost of live music at a funeral

Obviously professional musicians have to be paid, as part of the disbursements (funeral costs). Gloucestershire-based Marianne charges £100 for a single song (£50 each for additional songs) plus expenses, but this includes rehearsal time, advising the client and leading the hymn singing.

She underlines the point that it is better not to have a friend or relative perform on the day as the emotional strain can, in her experience, result in the performer’s breakdown.

Marianne also points out the time constraints of a crematorium service as opposed to a church or humanist funeral can affect the choice of music, too.

A professional organist would cost between £63-£85 at Royal School of Church Music rates.

If you require a group of musicians or a choir, check the size of the venue first. Can it accommodate the numbers? A church will take a larger number than a small crematorium or chapel. This may seem obvious but at such a stressful time, small details like this can be forgotten.

Every funeral is unique but try to accentuate the positive. And remember, for many people the last piece of music played at a funeral will remain one of their overriding memories of the deceased. So take the time to make that memory a great one.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.