Let the music play: is there a thing as an inappropriate funeral song?

Is there such a thing as an inappropriate choice of funeral music? Becky shares her thoughts...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The company has seen many social and cultural developments in over 166 years of trading, including adding a further three offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. Funerals are constantly being modernised and diversified and today, Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, considers how this applies to musical choices…

Perhaps I’m unusual, but the question of, ‘What songs would you like played at your funeral?’ often crops up at home. The suggestions are always favourite songs of each person, and usually more contemporary choices – we’re not a group who enjoys classical music, nor are we religious, so our selections are typically about popular songs we enjoy. Music is also always suggested without fear, which may sound strange, so I’ll explain further.

I recently saw a request on social media from someone arranging a funeral service for a customer who liked a specific band. The arranger wasn’t particularly familiar with the artist in question, but did know enough to know that this rock band is, shall we say, typical, in terms of their content being of the classic sex and drugs variety. So the arranger also requested ‘appropriate’ suggestions, which really got me thinking.

What does ‘appropriate’ even mean within the context of funerals in 2021?

Something we often say at Freeman Brothers is that the ‘right’ funeral is about the arrangements which suit you, rather than meeting convention. If you regard funerals as an opportunity to honour the person who has died, give thanks for the life they lived, and remind attendees of what they enjoyed, then surely appropriate is as individual as the person we are discussing? And, therefore, appropriate is as appropriate does.

This is where there’s a split in beliefs. When many people say ‘appropriate’ what they perhaps mean is traditional, or respectful… but even to be respectful doesn’t necessarily mean to be polite and child-friendly in terms of subject matter.

For me, appropriateness is a question of taste, and by that I mean our individual tastes, and not what is regarded as ‘tasteful’. Therefore, it’s about what honours the person who has died – and their wishes, if they had stated them – the life they led, and the preferences of those attending the funeral. In the same way that it wouldn’t be right to play songs with religious significance at the funeral of a person who had lived a non-religious (or even anti-religious) life, I don’t think it’d be fair to play nursery rhymes or choral music at a service celebrating an ardent metal-head.

So whilst it may make some mourners uncomfortable to consider that something outside of their own tastes, or what they believe to be right to be played, has been selected, it’s also not necessarily about their preferences. Plus, if they knew the Deceased person at all, and accepted their preferences whilst they were alive, it ought to be less of a surprise for their tastes to be referenced during the funeral service.

Clearly, there are some adaptations which may need to be made. For instance, if a large number of children are expected to attend the service, it’s worth making some careful choices. If they are old enough to appreciate the content of the music, it’s worth being mindful of the version selected – for example, choosing an edited one with explicit lyrics removed – but this may not be necessary should they be very young guests.

Choosing music which many people will recognise and is more contemporary could also provide both a positive talking point and an opportunity to bring people together and lighten the mood. A story of my Mum’s is something that comes to mind here: during the first year of my younger sister’s life, my parents had a funeral to attend. Due to my sister’s age, she went with them, whilst I was babysat by our grandparents (I would’ve been approaching my third birthday and, whilst not a typically-disruptive youngster, my parents wisely decided to give themselves a minimum amount of worries!). When they arrived at the wake, my parents then barely saw my sister for a few hours, as she was passed around the attendees, meeting many of them for the first time – my parents got a break, and the other guests had the light relief of a babe in arms to coo over, having survived the sadness of a funeral; it must’ve also been a nice demonstration of life going on in the face of death. The story has long taught me that a positive distraction during a mournful occasion can be entirely appropriate.

When returning to the question of appropriateness in a musical context, it’s worth bearing in mind that, particularly in the case of the Deceased person having only lived a short life, dying perhaps in their 20s for example, it may be far better to choose music which was meaningful to them, and therefore may have a more contemporary focus.

It could also be that the choice of music reflects a person’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. On more than one occasion since my time at Freeman Brothers began, a friend or acquaintance has mentioned that they would appreciate hearing a track such as The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ prior to a burial, or a song referencing fire or burning – perhaps Ash’s ‘Burn Baby Burn’, or ‘Fire’ by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (the performance of which is infamous – definitely in the ‘don’t try this at home’ category).

During my time at Freeman Brothers, it hasn’t been unusual for a funeral service to seem like a tribute to a particular artist. I’m often handed an order of service to proofread, and left in no doubt as to the Deceased person’s musical tastes – one which has remained ingrained in my memory was a Daniel O’Donnell fan, largely because my colleague Alex had made an unfortunate and highly uncharacteristic typo, which I picked up on. Unsurprisingly, my colleagues are also unafraid of more left-field choices themselves, with embalmer Fizzy requesting the sublime – Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ – and the ridiculous – the theme from The Magic Roundabout – for her service when the time comes; Funeral Arranger Russell, on the other hand, would like an extended tribute to Michael Bolton… each to their own.

I’ll close by revealing the mystery artist which had been requested: it was The Rolling Stones. As for my suggestions as to how to honour one of their fans? There’s a lot to choose from, particularly when you abandon all sense of appropriateness beyond sheer enjoyment. I like a lot of their popular songs, and I think there’s a case to be made for many of them, from ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ (great entrance music, as it’s got a long introduction), to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, or the Mick Jagger and David Bowie collaboration ‘Dancing In the Street’ (which might suit the recessional music, to get people exiting in the mood for a party).

These are my recommendations though:

Start Me Up

Sympathy for the Devil

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Let me know what you think of my Rolling Stones fan funeral playlist – would you choose different tracks, or is there another artist who some might regard as inappropriate but you’d love to have played at your funeral? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

August 18, 2021

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