A few years ago I found myself at the Crematorium. I was sharing the service with my predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell. The family had chosen 3 songs. We started with a reverent Westlife attempt at You Raise Me Up. Soon it Pat Boone. Ken gives me a look and I say, “I used to do a radio show, leave this one with me!”
So, this week, I found myself on BBC Radio Ulster talking about secular songs that I would have at my funeral. Mark Simpson was asking and my fellow interviewees were Michael Conlon, a humanist celebrant and Gaynor Kane, a poet.
For me it is always Deacon Blue’s Take Me To The Place. It has the catharsis, re-making Abide With Me as deep lament. Written for an actual funeral - Glasgow photographer Oscar Marzaroli’s.
Over the years I guess I’d have a few others. Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door seems like an ending before new beginnings; Brian Houston’s The Valley is a fine sign off to family and loved ones; and I could go back to Deacon Blue’s Riches, more a celebration of hopefulness that heaven will be all we had lived for on earth.
Michael chose This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush, a song that has meant a lot to him in his life. Gaynor went for the Final Countdown as her coffin disappears, more a shock or fun tactic.
For me, funerals are a triangle of sensitive relationships. The one who has passed away, their loved ones and me. Some such services are now called Thanksgivings as often as they are funerals. We are grieving a loss. We are remembering a life. If I am doing it, then we are putting both those things in the context of God and faith and eternity.
Those are all important things. Gaynor’s Final Countdown in some ways that new mix of celebrating a life and those first steps of grief’s long journey. It is the craic of the Irish wake sneaking into the funeral.
I have not used songs other than hymns very often in services but I can see their poignancy and usefulness. Favourite songs can reveal a lot about a life. Michael’s choice of The Woman’s Work saying something of his admiration for mother and grandmother.
One time I did use the secular song was when my friend Pat passed away. Pat was more Bowie than Church. I found myself in his home planning the funeral with his wife Gloria and daughter Alex arguing about what song Pat wanted. Space Oddity said Alex. Life On Mars said Gloria. Then Gloria added, “I remember him pointing out the question mark.” I was ten years old again. I saw that question mark on my RCA label of Life On Mars?
To play Life On Mars? as Pat’s coffin left the church seemed right. It seemed to meet the wishes of Pat and his family to play it. I then as the third side of the triangle pondered all the questions marks in the Bible. It worked a treat. BBC Radio 4 even picked it up for a programme on Life On Mars?