Music for Funerals - 30th August 2015

A Herald Sun survey in Melbourne a few years ago found that AFL Club theme songs were the most commonly requested songs at funerals. Others included My Way, Time to Say Goodbye, and Bette Midler's version of The Wind Beneath My Wings.

In response to this growing trend, the Archdiocese of Melbourne issued guidelines for Catholic funerals, which included the statement that secular items such as romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs or football club songs are never to be sung or played at a Catholic funeral.

Of course, this was immediately met with derision and accusations that the Church is out of touch with popular culture and insensitive to the feelings of the bereaved.

Clergy and others involved in preparing Catholic funerals have to very carefully tread the path between being pastoral and ensuring that the focus of funerals is on commending the deceased to God, as our faith demands. While a place might be found for an appropriate secular song at a Catholic funeral, it is the message of Christian hope that should predominate in the music chosen.  Most parishes do consider requests for contemporary music and try to accommodate a special song for a loved one, while keeping in mind the sacredness of the occasion.

The following statements from a discussion paper on Celebrating a Christian Funeral in a Catholic Church prepared by the National Liturgical Commission several years ago offer some helpful guidance (OCF refers to the Church’s ritual book for funerals, the Order of Christian Funerals):

Music is integral to the funeral rites – for the vigil, the funeral liturgy, funeral processions and the rite of committal (OCF 32).  Music has the power to console and uplift the mourners and to strengthen the unity of the assembly in faith and love.  Music chosen should express the paschal mystery of Jesus and relate to the readings from scripture (OCF 30, 31). 

Considering what all the people will be able to sing well will be one of the criteria of choice.  The assembly’s full participation in singing the hymns, responses and acclamations may be assisted by a cantor and/or a choir (OCF 33).

The OCF encourages parishes to ensure that an organist or other instrumentalist, a cantor, and if possible a choir assist the assembly’s full participation in singing the songs, responses, and acclamations at funerals.

It stresses the importance of the song of farewell “which affirms hope and trust in the paschal mystery and is the climax of the rite of final commendation. It should be sung to a melody simple enough for all to sing.” I always find it odd when the “song” of farewell is recited as happens not infrequently!

Secular music which had a special significance for the deceased person is best used at the Vigil, particularly during the time of sharing memories about the deceased person.  It is also appropriate to use such music after the funeral liturgy, when family and friends gather to continue their remembering of their loved one.

Issues surrounding music at funerals need to be resolved through sensitive pastoral dialogue with the bereaved.  Imposing rules without explanation can give offence.  The parish minister needs to understand the Church’s rite and the principles it enshrines, and work towards realising the ideals set out in the liturgical books.

Elizabeth Harrington