Songs sung at funerals vary depending on the wishes of the deceased person's family. Sometimes songs hold a deep spiritual or religious meaning, while others are more light in tone. Songs, as well as sermons, poetry, Bible readings, music, and eulogies, are all part of both protestant and catholic funerals.
Tradition of Singing at Funerals
What is the tradition of singing songs at funerals? African-Americans in slavery sang gospel songs when they held funerals for loved ones. Some of these are still part of our rich culture of today. Dirges, known as solemn songs expressing mourning and grief, have been sung during funeral processions in many countries.
The New Orleans tradition is a unique funeral procession rising from African and French traditions. A march by friends and family begins from the home, church or funeral home with loud instruments, usually a jazz ensemble. The elaborate procession makes its way through the town, ending up at the burial ground. Onlookers are even able to join this colorful ceremony.
Choirs, over the years, sing selections about Christ's victory over death and selections based on Psalm 23. Oftentimes, mourners at the funeral are asked to join in singing a stanza from a well-known hymn.
Songs Sung at Protestant Funerals
Usually accompanied by piano, organ or guitar, one or two people will sing a song at a funeral. The song might be a favorite of the deceased, or in the case of the death of a child, a piece that the parents find meaningful and comforting.
Most of the songs have to do with faith in eternal life, or the assurance of God's love, provision, and care for everyone. A few of these include:
- God Be in My Head
- Thou Knowest Lord, the Secrets of Our Heart
- God So Loved the World
- O God, Our Help in Ages Past
- O Strength and Stay
- Nearer My God to Thee
One of the most popular songs is the traditional Amazing Grace written by John Newton in 1779. Since that time, stanzas have been added, and the words to the song are printed in most protestant church hymnals.
No Secular Songs in the Catholic Church
Years ago, there was controversy in Rhode Island about whether the Irish-American ballad, Danny Boy, could be sung at a Catholic funeral. The Catholic church said it could not because of its secular nature. Generally, the Catholic church believes that songs should be uplifting and create a spirit of hope among the grievers. An organist, instruments and even a choir, should lead the congregation in the singing of triumphant songs, based on resurrection and forgiveness.
Contemporary Funeral Songs
Today, Christian musical groups, such as Mercy Me and Third Day, have written songs that many choose to have sung at contemporary funerals. The words to these songs speak of a new life in the presence of eternity. They were inspired by the loses these bands have had in their own lives with deaths that have come too soon. When a young person dies, often these are the songs young adult friends select for the funeral.
Done tastefully, and with respect to the family's wishes, songs sung at funerals can bring comfort and hope to those grieving the loss of a loved one. They can evoke emotions, as well as share some aspect of faith of the person whose death and life is being honored.