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The funereal factor

08 September 2017


Grave songs: in The Funeral Singer (Radio 4, Friday), the Revd Kate Bottley explored the popularity of live singing at funerals

Grave songs: in The Funeral Singer (Radio 4, Friday), the Revd Kate Bottley explored the popularity of live singing at funerals

WHEN will we know for sure that the Church of England is no longer a national Church — perhaps when congregation numbers fall to a level where there is only one mating pair left in a community? Or would a more authentic measure be the number of people who know “All things bright and beautiful”? When even Mrs Alexander has faded from the collective memory, who are you going to call: The Funeral Singer (Radio 4, Friday)?

The premise of this documentary, fronted by the Revd Kate Bottley, was that most people have no clue what music would be suitable for a funeral. There is always the jukebox option; but since Elton John did his turn at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, the popularity of live singing has been growing.

There was no evidence presented for this assertion, except accounts from the agencies who supply such singers; but let’s not have that get in the way of a good commissioning pitch.

Some of Mrs Bottley’s lexical tics might not be to everybody’s taste — her world is populated by “posh” and “common” people — but her guests spoke a great deal of sense, and prompted many more questions. Chris Yates (bizarrely introduced as a “policeman turned vicar” for no apparent reason) put his finger on it: we have lost our connection with death; we are unsure what function a funeral serves; and “My Way” is a terrible choice of song.

The historian Dr Lisa McCormick provided some historical perspective, suggesting that funeral hymns were introduced in the 19th century as a way of focusing the unscripted musical eruptions of the untutored.

The trouble is that few people now like funereal music at funerals. As Dr McCormick pointed out, the solemn 19th-century death marches are out of favour, replaced by Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life”. It takes a special piece to express grief and affirmation, loss and celebration in one sweep. In this respect it was Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith who provided the best piece of practical advice: if in doubt, go with Elgar’s “Nimrod”.

Elton John was certainly not the first to “drive a coach and horses through tradition”. Back in the ’90s, I sang regularly in a City church where the funeral repertoire regularly included “I’m for ever blowing bubbles” and “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”. But these myths are convenient.

And, just as myths were created around Diana, Princess of Wales, so others have formed around the public response to her passing. Fortunately, Natasha Kaplinsky’s panel of witnesses in Images of Diana (Radio 5 Live, Sunday) were sufficiently level-headed not to be taken in.

Did Britain lose its collective cool 20 years ago? A royal photographer with The Sun, Arthur Edwards, admitted that he wept; but he felt that the Queen should not have buckled to the pressure to return to London. The apparent tyranny of royal protocol was, at that point, replaced by the real tyranny of public opinion.

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