RECENTLY, I took the funeral of a well-loved Isle of Wight man, a market trader who had worked in many towns on the island.
Sitting down with his daughter to organise the service, it became clear that it was going to be rather different to a “normal” church funeral — not least because she wanted her father taken round the town in a horse-drawn carriage.
At this funeral, there were to be no hymns — not even “Abide with me” — and no organist. Instead, there were to be five songs played in full, starting with Barry Manilow’s “One Voice” and ending with the inevitable “My Way” (Sinatra). The daughter also expressed annoyance with other funeral celebrants and radio DJs who fade music out well before its ending; she was determined that this would not happen with her dad.
Many things were said during the service, by me and by her brother, yet it was during the songs, especially Donna Taggart’s “Jealous of the Angels”, that she became most emotional. “This will blow you away, Reverend,” she had said, when I confessed to not knowing it, and she was certainly not alone in shedding tears during the chorus: “It’s not my place to question, only God knows why, I’m just jealous of the angels around the throne tonight.”
Yet to me, the most remarkable aspect of this funeral took place as she and her siblings were bearing her father’s coffin out to “My Way”. As they got to the door they halted for a whole minute, with the full pressure of their father on their shoulders, until the song had finished.
THIS was the most dramatic example of a change I have observed in funerals recently. At the crematorium, it used to be that, after the blessing and the start of the “exit” track, you would slowly make your way out, to be followed in close succession by chief mourners.
Offering a service: the Revd Hugh WrightNow, however, even if subtle pressure is placed on the family by clergy, funeral directors, and crematorium staff — who are often concerned about running late — the family will not move until the final song is finished.
Over the past 30 years, a shift in power has taken place in funerals: fewer and fewer services are led by church ministers. Clergy who are asked to lead services can sometimes feel like masters of ceremony, bringing on stage the liturgy, family members, a few traditional hymns, a Bible reading, an internet poem, a Christian message, and — increasingly — songs. They range from Sinatra and Cole Porter to Eva Cassidy, Ed Sheeran, and Stormzy.
Clergy respond to this in a variety of ways, and no Chapter meeting is complete without a moan about such developments. “I tend to discourage such things,” a retired colleague said, and, knowing him, I’m sure he did.
YET what if we reframed the whole question from one about permission-seeking on their part (”May we play such and such a track?”), to active involvement on ours (”What is it about this music that speaks to you so powerfully?”).
This year, I have turned 60, an event that has crystallised many things in my mind, especially in a town with many ageing hippies who love their music.
As a lifelong churchgoer, ordained at 30, and a child of the 1960s, I have two song collections: church music and “popular” songs. Both are important to me, both carry meaning, and I cannot imagine a world where I was asked to choose between Bunyan’s “To be a pilgrim” and Bob Dylan’s “Ring them bells”.
I know that I am, however — and others like me — in a shrinking minority. The vast majority of my contemporaries retain only one collection, containing a ragbag of material from the trivial to the profound. They do not see this as their incidental background music: for them, it is the “meat and potatoes” of their lives, their “soul music”.
My fear is that, if we do not embrace this opportunity for meeting people where they are on these occasions, they will continue to vote with their feet (as they already are), and seek the services of a celebrant. In so doing, they will miss out on the incomparable riches of the funeral liturgy, and the opportunity to hear and partake in the hope of the gospel underlying it.
The Revd Hugh Wright is the Vicar of St Catherine’s, Ventnor, and of Holy Trinity, Ventnor, and Rector of St Boniface, Bonchurch, on the Isle of Wight.
He would like to interview people who have requested popular music for their own funeral, or that of a loved one; also from clergy about their approach to the music requested at services. Do you ban it and discourage it, or willingly embrace it? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.