‘Music has charms to soothe a savage beast’ – William Congreve, 1697
Music is a wonderful thing; you know this, why else would you be here? One of the most powerful aspects, however, is that music is always there for you. Whether soundtracking your triumphs and successes or helping you find expression in a darker moment, the right music at the right time has a way of distilling an emotion, and crystallizing a memory. We have covered the link between music and emotion before from a formal perspective.
One of the most beautifully poignant uses for music is funeral songs. Perhaps there is a piece of music that is indelibly linked to the departed, a memory that they shared with people or one that they particularly loved that has allowed people to identify with them. These connections are inherently personal and can only be discovered through genuine communication or understanding. Here we’ve compiled a list of funeral songs that we feel might be appropriate for the occasion. They may provide comfort at a difficult time or perhaps help to give a differing perspective on a difficult situation.
#10 Israel’ IZ’ Kamakawiwoʻole – Somewhere over the Rainbow
Year Recorded: 1988
We begin with a Hawaiian reworking of the Judy Garland classic originally performed in 1939 as part of The Wizard of Oz. The song itself is simply beautiful, full of emotional yearning and visual lyricism, it has been a staple of Western popular culture for the better part of a hundred years. While the original version itself would be a touching tribute, Bruddah Iz’s cover has become ever more significant since its release.
Replacing the grand instrumentation of the original with a plaintive ukulele arrangement, apparently recorded in a single take by Kamakawiwoʻole in 1988, allows room for the song’s sentiment to breathe, and only increases the emotional impact. The song has been used to great effect on a host of tv and film soundtracks, including Meet Joe Black and ER, increasing familiarity, and serving as a testament to its understated impact.
Trivia: This version of the song has attained ever-increasing levels of cultural significance over the last few years, reaching 1 billion streams on Youtube in 2020 and being inducted into the National Recording Registry of American heritage the following year.
#9 Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman – Time To Say Goodbye
Year Recorded: 1995
Undoubtedly the trademark song of one of the world’s great modem opera performers, this song has been capturing the world’s attention since it was debuted by Bocelli at the 1995 Sanremo Music Festival. This is the English language version of Andrea Bocelli’s classic tribute to loss and love, Con te partirò. Again, the music is fairly straightforward, a simple ascending orchestral melody over a simple marching drum, allowing for Bocelli and Brightman’s incomparable operatic vocal performance to shine.
The song’s universal popularity has been evident since its release, breaking sales records across Europe with the release of the original Italian version in 1995 and then seeing further acclaim on the release of this version in 1996. The lyrics, about the enduring quality of lost love and the comfort of keeping memories alive, are perfect for the occasion. At the same time, the beauty of the music is almost guaranteed to pay for the occasion and the people involved the respect they have earned.
Trivia: Although we are focussing on the song’s emotional weight in a funeral context, Brightman’s English language performance was initially added to the song to mark the end of Henry Maske’s boxing career.
#8 Édith Piaf – Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
Year Recorded: 1960
No, I do not regret anything. What could be a perfect message with which to reflect triumphantly on someone’s life? Édith Piaf made a career as one of France’s most popular and recognizable performers through the middle of the twentieth century, with her stock in trade being intensely personal and unflinching reflections on her own life. None were quite so impactful as this, recorded and released in 1960 towards the end of her own tragically short life.
Born to a pair of performers in Paris in the midst of World War 1, Piaf was abandoned by both of her parents during her childhood until her father returned from the war during her teens and introduced her to the life of a performer. Nicknamed Piaf, meaning sparrow due to her slight build, she demonstrated an uncommon ability for both performance and resilience. Her story, and this song in particular, has held the attention of listeners globally for over sixty years now and the lyrics, concerned with making peace with both the good and bad elements of her past, make this an ideal song to mark someone’s passing.
Trivia: Piaf’s life story has been adapted several times for both stage and screen, most notably when Marion Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress for portraying her in La Vie en Rose.
#7 Johan Pachelbel – Canon in D
Year Composed: 1680
Sometimes the best approach is to allow the instrumentation of a song to take center stage rather than allow a vocal performance or lyrical themes to obscure the moment. While Pachelbel’s Canon in D has also become a cornerstone of wedding ceremonies, we feel that the piece’s elegance means it is also suitable to mark someone’s passing.
While there are sure to be overriding feelings of sadness, it is sometimes important to focus on the more uplifting aspects of a life well lived rather than the grief of loss. This idea of celebrating someone’s life as opposed to mourning their passing is a popular one, and in these circumstances, the undeniable joy of this piece is sure to serve the occasion well. While the piece may predate the 1700’s, its chord progression has been utilized by everyone from Kylie Minogue to Pet Shop Boys to Green Day, attesting to its universality. Although this may not be everyone’s first thought when it comes to a piece of music, its popularity has only increased since it was first published in the early 20th century, and with good reason.
Trivia: Its exact origin, and the story around its creation, have been lost to time. It has been suggested that Canon in D was initially composed for the wedding of a member of the famous Bach family.
#6 Nina Simone – You’ll Never Walk Alone
Year Recorded: 1958
Since its creation for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel all the way back in 1945, You’ll Never Walk Alone has held a special place in pop culture history, having been recorded and released by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin. The version recorded by British band Gerry and the Pacemakers was famously co-opted by fans of several soccer clubs, notably Fenway Sports Group-owned Liverpool Football Club.
Although the lyrical content is both comforting and rousing, reminding the listener that even in passing, they will always feel unity with their loved ones, this version is instrumental. Recorded for Nina Simone’s first album in 1958, this wordless piano version is starkly beautiful. With Simone’s trademark jazz playing style, it can almost sound like the song is going to spill over into chaos before in much the same way as the lyrics state, the storm breaks and gives way to the familiar melody. Throughout a long and storied career, it can be hard to pick out a single moment from a performer as singular as Simone, but this relatively understated performance, recorded while she still harbored ambitions of becoming a classical performer, is stunning.
Trivia: Further cementing the link between this song and soccer, in an odd moment of circuity, the song Fearless on Pink Floyd’s 1971 album fades out through the coda into a field recording of soccer fans, presumably from Liverpool, using the song as a chant.
#5 Billie Holiday – I’ll Be Seeing You
Year Recorded: 1944
This is a somewhat a more romantic song than some of the others on this list, detailing a lover’s determination to hold on to a memory. As with most songs on this list, the music is simpler, allowing room for Holiday’s heart-breaking vocal to take center stage over a tinkling, chiming, jazz piano. That the whole thing is ingrained in the crackle and distortion that marks many early jazz and blues recordings only adds to the nostalgic sense of loss and romance.
The song was originally written for a Broadway show, Right This Way, in 1938 and lent its name to a film the same year. It has been recorded by many performers, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but we feel that the glamour and yearning for romance, as well as the underlying theme of taking hope and comfort from a life well lived, are all best served by the incomparable Billie Holiday. In the manner of some others on this list, the performer’s life was no stranger to tragedy. As a troubled yet highly influential and popular jazz performer throughout the 30s and 40s, Holiday’s recognition as a pioneering artist arguably came too late, as she was recognized with no less than four posthumous Grammys, after losing her life at only 44.
Trivia: This song was the last transmission from NASA to the Mars rover, Opportunity, which had been exploring the surface of the planet for fifteen years before finally going offline.
#4 Eric Idle – Always Look on the Bright Side of Lifetime
Year Recorded: 1978
An undoubted change of direction, but a recognition that the most fitting tribute is a personal one. These can take many forms, but sometimes it might be appropriate to add some humor to the proceedings. After all, we’re sure we all know someone that says they don’t want any tears at their funeral. In that case, and because of the song’s lyrical content, there can hardly be a better choice than this.
Recorded by Eric Idle for Monty Python’s legendary 1979 satirical comedy classic, Life of Brian, the song is sung en masse by a group of people from the top of Golgotha in the closing credits, as the camera slowly tracks back to reveal a large group of doomed prisoners choosing to do exactly what the title of the song says. While it is the perfect ending for the film, and undeniably comic, the song’s themes are genuinely heart-warming. We should also note that, while the film was met with controversy for the way it mined biblical themes with comedy, we believe that it was intended to satirize how religion has been co-opted by various bodies of power over the centuries, rather than the message of the Bible itself.
Trivia: The song was once sung by a British warship crew awaiting rescue after being hit by an Argentine Exocet missile.
#3 Edward Elgar – Nimrod (Enigma Variations)
Year Composed: 1898
One of the more traditional selections, and one that has a regular place amongst funeral services for good reason. Nimrod is the name given to the ninth variation of an orchestral theme Elgar composed towards the end of the nineteenth century. Each one of the fourteen enigma variations was designed to represent a close member of Elgar’s personal circle with the ninth, and most recognizable dedicated to his friend, editor and publisher, Augustus J. Jaeger. The music, in a manner that would be fitting for many funerals, is intended as a representation of the serene guidance and advice Elgar received from his friend throughout their time together.
Aside from the building, swelling and ascendant dynamic of the piece, which highlights the depth of feeling during such an occasion, the piece has a long-standing tradition as a ceremonial song. It has been played at the funeral of British royals Princess Diana and Prince Phillip and at the Cenotaph each year at Remembrance Sunday services. Alongside its status as a cornerstone of high culture in Britain, Nimrod has also found an appreciation within popular culture, including the finale of Chris Nolan’s 2017 epic Dunkirk.
Trivia: The name, Nimrod, represents the subject of the piece. Nimrod is the name of a hunter featured in the Old Testament, and the word Jäger translates from German as ‘hunter’.
#2 Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Year Recorded: 1975
Although there is a mystique around Pink Floyd, a layer of majesty built through dense musical experimentation and poetic, symbolic lyrics, some argue they are at their best when they strip those layers back and allow for a moment of searing honesty. By Pink Floyd’s standards, this is an unusually simple song, but simplicity in the hands of a group of musicians as talented as there is a highly potent weapon.
The song is the title track from their 1975 album and is recognized by both writers, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, as one of the band’s finest. While the two disagree somewhat on how direct the influence is, the song is ultimately dedicated to the influence and subsequent loss of their friend and former bandmate Syd Barrett. The simple, emotional honesty of the lyrics and subtle power of the music make this a breath-taking song, and the weight of the inspiration and clarity of its message make it a perfect tribute to both the impact of someone’s loss and the importance of their memory.
Trivia: Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour are credited as the songwriters. This is very unusual as they rarely wrote songs together.
#1 Frank Sinatra – My Way
Year Recorded: 1969
All funerals are emotional by their very nature, but the tone varies depending on the person or people involved. Whereas some services may focus on the sense of loss, or else seek comfort in the strength of the connection that remains, for some it feels more important to raise a toast, and a wink, to one of life’s rascal entertainers. In those specific moments, who better to call on than Old Blue Eyes?
Originally written by Jacques Revaux in France in 1967, the rights were eventually bought by Paul Anka, before being retooled into the version we know today. This song, as with everything involving Sinatra, looms large over American pop culture. It instantly reinstated his reputation at music’s top table even as it was recorded and released in the late sixties, as the cultural dial had ticked past the big band entertainers like Sinatra himself and his peers. Ultimately, it’s an anthem to self-determination, and although its extremely male-centric view may be off-putting in certain contexts, what better way to say that you lived life on your own terms?
Trivia: The song has retained its iconic status through more recent times, unusually played at both Donald Trump’s inauguration and, more recently, rapper Nipsey Hussle’s funeral.
Although ranking these songs objectively is extremely difficult due to the sensitive nature of the context, we have compiled a few more choices in order to provide a somewhat broader view of the subject.
#11 Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace
A song, and a performer, that need absolutely no introduction or explanation, this recording was taken live from a Gospel service in Southern California in 1972 and is nothing less than spine-tingling.
#12 Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
Jeff Buckley’s incomparable reworking of Leonard Cohen’s Biblical lament to the overwhelming power of love needs to be heard to be believed and would grace any remembrance.
#13 Lynrd Skynrd – Freebird
Forever associated with the tragic loss of several of the band’s founding members in a plane crash three years after its release as a single, the song’s message is one having no fear of the future and living in peace, something we could all do with being reminded of in dark times.
#14 Antony and the Johnsons – Hope There’s Someone
An absolute heartbreaker, a plaintive cry for the comfort of a loved one, a truly unique song that manages to remain uplifting despite the rawness of its lyric, especially through the crescendo in the last minute of the song, which crests into a more peaceful, reflective mode in the finale.
#15 Simple Minds – Don’t You Forget About Me
Although this might not suit everyone’s taste for a funeral, there’s no denying that in the right circumstances it would be an excellent choice. Wry, uplifting, and extremely groovy.
While a funeral will never be an easy thing to deal with, we firmly believe that with the right musical choices, you can ensure that they are a much more effective way of remembering those we may have lost. Although we hope that you don’t find yourself in this unenviable position any time soon, we hope that this list may provide some interesting perspectives on the kinds of ways that music might be utilized in a heartfelt service.
Having said that, if after all that you feel yourself in the mood for a change of pace, please help yourself to a much more upbeat read with our rundown of some choice 80s dance hits! As ever with Ledger Note, we love to hear from you; please do not hesitate to reach out with any thoughts you may have about our funeral song selections.
Top 10 Best Funeral Songs (2023)
This is the table for the top 10 most suitable funeral songs, containing the song name, artist and year recorded.
|Position||Song Name||Artist||Year Recorded|
|1||My Way||Frank Sinatra||1969|
|2||Wish You Were Here||Pink Floyd||1975|
|3||Nimrod (Enigma Variations)||Edward Elgar||1898|
|4||Always Look on the Bright Side of Lifetime||Eric Idle||1978|
|5||I’ll Be Seeing You||Billie Holiday||1944|
|6||You’ll Never Walk Alone||Nina Simone||1958|
|7||Canon in D||Johan Pachelbel||1680|
|8||Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien||Édith Piaf||1960|
|9||Time To Say Goodbye||Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman||1995|
|10||Somewhere over the Rainbow||Israel’ IZ’ Kamakawiwoʻole||1988|