Music for funerals and memorial ceremonies

When planning a funeral or memorial ceremony, choosing appropriate music can be an important part of honouring and remembering the deceased. Choices may depend on whether the mood is intended to be sad and contemplative, or instead celebrating the life of the person (and/or their transition to a 'better place' for those with such religious views). There is a trend in recent years — particularly with younger people — to steer clear of some of the more traditional pieces, such as Chopin's Funeral March, and have less religious or classical music, choosing secular songs over sacred.

Candles in darkness

When is music played?

For ceremonies in the UK, whether church or crematorium, it is common (and best practice) to plan music for the following times:

How is music played?

Some people request songs or pieces with a special meaning for the deceased — or indeed, for those left behind — and occasionally they will want to play these via CD, iPod/iPhone or similar technology. This can work well, but we often see problems, such as:

An experienced funeral director should check and arrange for everything like this in advance, of course.

For live music, there are many options, depending on the venue and also the budget. A church or crematorium will generally have a pipe organ or electronic organ, which can provide a solemn and respectful atmosphere and only require one musician. Professional organists such as ourselves will often be able to play an arrangement of most pieces requested, such as those shown on this page, and keep playing appropriate music — or even improvising — to cover any delays or awkward gaps.

Organist at the console in a dark church

String quartets and similar ensembles can add a unique touch to the service, especially if the deceased was a musician — we arranged a whole orchestra once, for a conductor's memorial service. It may be best to use an organ too to accompany any songs if there is a large number of mourners. If the church also has a choir available, they can help support the hymns (mourners are sometimes too upset to sing out, or lack confidence), and can impart a beautiful and uplifting element to other parts of the ceremony, especially if they sing an anthem, often by Harris, Parry, Rutter, Stanford, Vaughan Williams or similar British composers.

What type of music is played?

Unless the deceased has left clear instructions, it's normally up to the family to choose music that will suit the person who has died but also those who will be attending. Funeral directors and musicians do this kind of work every day, so will generally not be shocked even by the most outlandish requests. For example, "Always look on the bright side of life" (from Monty Python's "The Life of Brian") was once banned in many locations, but is now a popular choice, and services at crematoriums often end with something aimed at producing a final laugh: see below. Conversely, those anxious not to offend anyone often go for well-known pieces of classical music or classic songs (think ClassicFM 'hall of fame'), and if in doubt, sometimes take inspiration from televised funerals, e.g. of the Royal Family. If there are military connections, The Last Post (and The Reveille) may be played: for which of course you'll need a trumpeter or bugler.

Popular songs and instrumental pieces

Some popular choices of music we have played are shown below.

Hymns and worship songs

Most of these are appropriate for any denomination — Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, etc. — depending on the preference of the family and the priest or minister conducting the service. Larger, more formal services might also include liturgical music such as chants, responsories, or psalms.

Risky choices

If you're happy for the event to be a celebration, and don't mind shocking people with 'inappropriate' humour (funeral directors tell the best jokes...) or profane music, there is a huge selection, especially for crematorium services.