The Music of Funerals

The antithesis is sharpening.

Funerals are now taking on a new complexion in England. Some are religious and some are humanist. And people are becoming so indifferent as to the distinction that, more often than not, they do not tell you it will be humanist until you are outside the door of the "Church".

The fact that a funeral is classed as humanistic does not remove religion. In my experience, humanists always need music. 

The Religion of Music

Wilfrid Mellors wrote in "Celestial Music":

Music is often said to be the closest of the arts to religion since what we call its ‘language’ cannot be intellectually articulate; indeed, its very lack of articulacy may put us in touch with the numinous, and therefore presumably with the divine, or at least with the forces we call ‘spiritual’. Although I am not myself a ‘believer’, I seem to be partial to religious music, I suspect because it asks, though it cannot answer, those eternally Unanswered Questions.

“Prologue: What is religious music?” p.xi of Celestial Music? Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music

Music is not a mystery.

Music does not ask questions. Music is a proclamation of worth. It may proclaim worth but the act of making music is, in itself, a proclamation.

This means there is no sense of doubt. There is nothing vague or fearful. Contrary to Mellors' confused reflections, music knows.

And that is why music is beloved by people of doubt - like humanists at funerals.

Adopting Worth

We all know that a chocolate bar, filled with lots of fruit and nuts, becomes so much more than a chocolate bar when juxtaposed with a certain piece of Classical music. And we know that a series like The Apprentice gained an impressive presence in advertising by another piece of Classical music.

The music is chosen because it is someone's bold proclamation of worth and by placing it alongside something which is relatively tedious, it is hoped that some of the worth in the music will rub off on the thing advertised. Hence trailer music is often very different to the music used in a film - the hard sell requires maximum proclamation of a worth often beyond the object.

So when a man lies dead in a coffin and nothing much can be said about him, music is used to suggest worth, to ascribe worth, which perhaps no one perceived in his life.

Someone might pipe up, "But isn't that the same in all funerals?"

No. In a Christian funeral the only music appropriate is religious music. If we sing the Psalms around the coffin of a saint, we do so to praise God. We proclaim the worth of our Creator, who holds our lives in the balance and may call us to himself at any moment. This is a Christian use of music. The person in the coffin may have been massively loved by all present or passed through life without making much of a splash. That doesn't matter. The occasion is used to direct eyes upwards to God, not downwards into the grave, where there is no hope - especially not from the man who will look no more upon this earth.

The Laughing Man

If I was a humanist and wanted some music to infuse a funeral with meaning, I think I could do better than "Time to Say Goodbye". It is so "on the nose". It is a song to the deceased who cannot hear us. It offers no comfort. It gives no hope. We might as well listen to "The Party's Over", because that is more honest from a humanist perspective. Its only purpose in a humanistic funeral is to try to bring tears and it is not a good enough song to do so.

There is of course the tendency to try to make the gathered crowd laugh at a funeral. It happened in a family humanistic funeral, where the congregation/audience was invited to get bingo cards from under the seats and we all looked. One acquaintance had the curtains close to an organ rendition of Morecambe and Wise's "Bring Me Sunshine". It's tacky. And sick. 

The humanist has a misplaced idea that music can compensate and take the place of religion in a funeral. So he will use music badly and fail in his design.

Roger Scruton is one of the most vocal humanistic writers on music. And, at the end of a long series of essays on Wagner, he makes the point he wanted to make all along:

Religion provides that meaning and overcomes that fear; but it does so through baseless promises that offer redemption from a point outside our human world and on a metaphysical assumption that is no longer credible. Only if man can produce meaning from his own resources, and vanquish the fear of death in the same act, is the consolation of religion now available. The lingering after image of an old theology tells us that meaning lies in some reward offered when life is over. But more noble, more dignified, and more in tune with the deep needs of religious man is the belief that meaning is its own reward. On this view, life becomes meaningful when it throws rewards away - in other words, when it is self-sacrificed. By enfolding this sacrifice within the sacred aura of the erotic, Wagner offers the final proof that man can become holy to himself with no help from the gods.

Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton, p.190

Somehow I cannot picture Wagner being used, even in a humanist's funeral because when it is time to die, even a humanist wants the confident sounds of J S Bach over the rippling doubt and fear of Richard Wagner. No one wrote more music about death than Wagner and no one is less able to comfort those who mourn.