Theologian Martin Luther wrote, “My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when weary and sick.” We all know the value of music in our personal lives, how it can set and even change a mood. Especially for baby boomers, rock and roll music has both defined our culture and been a companion for all of our most cherished events. Certain songs will immediately transport us back in our lives to something special with which it was associated.
Music at funerals and memorial services is still important today. The question many ask is how to make the music relevant to me. We ask a family ‘What type of music did he or she like?” Our library of CDs is extensive, and with iTunes, almost anything is possible to set the tone for a visitation with background music. The more difficult task comes with selecting single songs to be used during the service itself. With that in mind, I would like to list 15 or so of the more popular ‘funeral songs’ from the rock and roll era. I have not included Elvis’ Gospel songs, for which he won his only two Grammy Awards, or any Country and Western songs. There are plenty others and this is just my personal opinion, but you can put this play list on anytime for me!
#15- “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
Actually “Time” by Pink Floyd was one of the first rock and roll songs we ever played for a funeral at Hansen-Spear. The alarm clocks startled a few people who were not familiar with it. “Wish You Were Here” from 1975 addresses founding member Syd Barrett’s tragic mental decline. Both Richard Wright and David Gilmour have said this is their favorite Pink Floyd album. “How I wish, how I wish you were here.”
#14- “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg
This 1979 hit made it to #2 on the charts, ironically not being able to push past Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” The song expresses the emotional attachment to loved ones. “Through the years as the fire starts to mellow, burning lines in the book of our lives, though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow, I’ll be in love with you.”
#13-“One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boys II Men
This 1995 gem is about losing a loved one and eventually seeing him again in heaven. “I know you’re shining down on me from Heaven.” The regret is that on Earth, we take people for granted. Both Carey and the group had specific people in mind when they wrote it, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic was a catalyst. This song was played at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.
#12- “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112
This cover of the Police hit from 1983 with some Gospel “I’ll Fly Away” added was a tribute to fellow rap artist Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G” Wallace who was murdered in 1997. This Grammy Award winning song is one of the biggest selling singles of all time!
#11- “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day
Sometimes the popularity for a funeral or wedding song is unfounded because people don’t understand the song. This song is thought of as a romantic ballad by a punk rock band. It is in reality a song about the bitterness of a breakup. Written in 1993 but not released until 1997 (it didn’t fit with the punk albums they were recording), the songwriter ultimately changed the tongue in check name to “Good Riddance” to better identify his meaning. I suspect we would not see it much at funerals or weddings with that title. “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end that’s right, I hope you had the time of your life.”
#10- “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel
Another example of a misleading title. This 1977 song was inspired by Joel’s high school crush on Virginia Callahan. “Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait.” It has more to do with horny, teenage boys than dying, but it is a catchy tune. Just don’t listen too closely.
#9- “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion
The writer, Diane Warren, wrote this as a tribute to her father for his guidance, encouragement and protection throughout her life, making her what she was. “I’m everything because you loved me.” This 1996 version was nominated for an Academy Award from the film “Up Close and Personal” and 4 Grammy Awards, winning one Grammy.
#8- “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan
McLachlan took an instrumental by Seamus Egan, added lyrics and won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Female Pop Performance. “I will remember you. Will you remember me? Don’t let your life pass by. Weep not for the memories.”
#7- “The Rose” by Bette Midler
The story behind the movie was based loosely on Janis Joplin. Originally called “Pearl’ after Janis’ nickname, the Joplin family pulled the plug and the movie was rewritten as fiction. Midler was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and sang the soundtrack. “Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies to seed that with the sun’s love in the Spring becomes the rose.”
#6- “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion
Dion, Midler and McLachlan all landed two songs on my list, although I am not a great fan of any. The music fits the situation, though. This Grammy (1999) and Academy Award (1997) winning song from “Titanic” was the best selling song of 1998. Let’s face it, the love story and death in “Titanic,” followed by a lifetime of wondering “What if?” make this song pull on anyone’s heart strings. “Near, far, wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on.”
#5- “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole
Originally recorded by Nat in 1951 and rerecorded in 1961 in stereo, it was the 1991 version where Elvis’ legendary music director Joe Guerico had the idea of remixing with daughter Natalie to make it a duet that rocked the charts. It dominated the Grammy Awards in 1992, but it is the concept of long deceased father and his daughter being able to make music from beyond the grave that makes this one so unforgettable to me. Who wouldn’t want to turn back time and spend more time doing something with dad again? “Unforgettable, that’s what you are. Unforgettable, tho’ near or far.”
#4- “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler
It was recorded by several artists with marginal success before the Divine Miss M sang it for the movie “Beaches” in 1988. Released as a single in 1989, it won Grammys for Song and Record of the Year. It was never my favorite because flying is a function of air moving over the wing, not under it. But it made the list because I get the point. It’s a song thanking a loved one for always being supportive, even at the expense of the loved one’s own success. “Did I ever tell you you’re my hero? You’re everything I wish I could be.” A 2002 poll in the United Kingdom found this to be the most played song at British funerals. It probably is in the United States, too.
#3- “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
McLachlan explained this 1997 song was about Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin who overdosed on heroin and died in 1996. Many people refer to it as “In the Arms of an Angel.” This has been a staple for YouTube video tributes as well as performances at the dedication of the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania and the “Concert for Linda” McCartney. Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. credits this song for saving his life. “You’re in the arms of an angel. May you find some comfort here.”
#2- “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel
Written by Mike Batt for the animated British film “Watership Down”, I think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever sung. It was the top selling British single in 1979 but never garnered much success in the U.S. so many people do not know it. I urge you to track down a copy to listen. It is one of the songs in my personal funeral plans. I was blessed to see him in Chicago backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His voice is still clear as crystal, and I got misty hearing this song. “Bright eyes, burning like a fire. Bright eyes, how can you close and fail. How can the light that burned so brightly suddenly burn so pale? Bright eyes.”
#1- a four way tie!
In no particular order, let’s do…
“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.
This Jewish composer wrote a song about Jesus. “When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” And” I got a friend in Jesus.” A one hit wonder from 1969, Greenbaum says that funeral directors tell him that only ‘Danny Boy’ gets more requests than “Spirit.”
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Written originally as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, “Goodbye Norma Jean” in 1973, it was reworked for Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. Co-writer Bernie Taupin said the song is about anyone being cut down in the prime of life and how they are then glamorized. It could as easily have been about Jim Morrison of the Doors or James Dean. “The Guinness Book of World Records” in 2007 said the 1997 version, also known as “Goodbye England’s Rose,” was the biggest selling single since records began.
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
Okay, it has nothing to do with life and death, but people just like the song. I saw them in Cleveland when I was in college, the last tour with John Bonham. Just about everybody has an individual interpretation to this rock anthem, tying it to certain events or circumstances in one’s life. That’s the power of music. Let’s be honest, we have all heard it a thousand times, but for rockers, the build up from an antique recorder to the hard rock finale is visceral. Jimmy Page mentions how Christians see it as hoping for a Second Advent, while others as a vision for the future with open doors. “Where all is one and one is all.”
“Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
The back story to this song is so horrific and one can feel the pain and loss about the death of Clapton’s four year old son, Conor. In 1991, Conor fell from a friend’s 53rd floor apartment in New York. How Clapton could even write it much less perform it are miracles in my book. But once again, it shows the power of music to be felt and to heal. Clapton won several Grammy’s in 1993 including Song and Record of the year. One of, if not his most popular song, Clapton stopped playing it in 2004 because, “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing these songs. I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly.”
We unfortunately still play it a lot for young people’s services, and if you don’t tear up, you don’t have a heart. Most of us cannot image the debilitating grief of a parent. “Would you know my name if I saw you in Heaven?” “I must be strong and carry on.”
So there you have it. The list was originally to be ten and then fifteen, so I had to cheat to get them all in. In some form or another, the thread that ties them together is their general popularity. Many were number 1 hits as well as Grammy and Academy Award winners. All of them make people feel, and give the solace and refreshment so needed at a time like this. Have I missed anything? Let me know your favorites.
If you enjoyed this list of songs, check out Jeff’s 2020 follow up to this blog….Fifteen Rock and Roll Songs for Funerals (PART 2).