Let’s speak frankly: The type of music that’s playing at your funeral really depends on the manner in which you’ve died. Hey, I was an altar server, and I saw it all: the young people who had died in tragic car accidents – saddest when it was a young mother who had left behind little kids; really old folks whose services literally had three people in attendance; one suicide; and not-especially-old folks whose middle-aged children were clearly grappling with mixed feelings. On that note, I once saw a balding fifty-something man with a paunch break down in tears while trying to deliver the eulogy for his mother, eventually squeaking out, “Mom, I’ll miss you … so much!”
I mean no disrespect here. But if I sound a tad morbid right now, try being a 12-year-old girl – and a newly minted altar server, at that, a member of the first crop of altar girls for whom the Pope had recently given the go-ahead – who is trying her best not to burst into tears mid-service. The experience was definitely made easier by finding things to laugh at (in my head, naturally).
In any event, funerals are sad enough as they are (wow, there’s your shocking revelation of the day), and they needn’t be made even sadder by some weepy song. Take it from this Catholic: I can hardly get through the opening strains of “On Eagle’s Wings” without feeling my chest tighten. And let’s not get started on that song that references the “brush of angel’s wings.” I cannot handle these.
So I guess we can fairly assume that I wouldn’t want a sad song to be played at my funeral, even if the death was an untimely one. Especially if the death was an untimely one. In that event, though, how does one select a song that strikes the right note of bittersweet, perhaps with a tad more emphasis on the bitter than on the sweet? Here’s one example: If you’ve ever seen the movie Love, Actually, recall the funeral scene for Liam Neeson’s young wife. (That’s some irony, and I once read that Neeson was more tortured by the memory of that role than any other after the sudden death of his wife, Natasha Richardson.) A picture slideshow is accompanied by the song “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” by the Bay City Rollers. Sure, the lyrics – though probably intended for a lost love, but not a literally lost love – prove tragic when coupled with the situation, but the song is upbeat enough so as not to render the service even more of an unstoppable sobfest. Good choice.
I’m going to go with a similarly bittersweet, also intended-for-a-lost-love type of song. And there’s one that comes to mind right away: Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine”. I’ve always loved the opening guitar notes of this song, just some simple – but surely not so simple to play – haunting acoustic work by Jimmy Page. The guitar matches the tone of the lyrics: “Thinking how it used to be, does she still remember times like these?” And the verses always give way to a more-upbeat chorus: “Tangerine, tangerine, living reflection from a dream. She was my lover, she was my queen, and now a thousand years in between.” Robert Plant sounds wistful to the point of almost being hopeful, and the melody matches that sentiment.
The movie Almost Famous uses this song in the closing scene. (Spoilers on the way here.) The main character, Cameron Crowe’s alter-ego William Miller, has just had a lifetime’s worth of experience within the past two weeks spent touring with an up-and-coming band. He’s lost his virginity. He’s missed his high-school final exams. He’s discovered that the musicians he’s idolized for so long are really just people too, but the realization doesn’t disappoint – instead, it just makes them better. He’s almost died on an airplane. He’s kept Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane from committing suicide, and then he’s still been able to have a good conversation with her the next morning. And in the end, there’s nothing better than his own crappy bed and a batch of his mother’s pancakes. The film’s last shot is of the band’s tour bus – with its “No More Airplanes Tour” sign – driving away into the sunset. A bit cheesy, yes, but also so poignant. I can’t imagine the scene without “Tangerine”.
Would the song match my life? I hope so. I hope to have lived “a thousand years’” worth of experience, no matter the number of years I’m actually on this earth.
And lest I devolve into too much sap here, allow me to present an alternate song. This is the one to be used in the event that I live to a very old age and die of natural causes – the way we all would hope to go, right?
I’ve surely revealed as much to anyone who’s been in my presence for more than six minutes, so I might as well make it known here: Madonna rocks my world. I’ve loved her, idolized her, obsessed over her since 1985, when my four-year-old self saw the “Material Girl” video on MTV – one of the first videos I remember seeing, one of my first memories in general even. I was entranced; I felt like Madonna was looking at me and singing to me. You can’t argue with that brand of innate charisma.
But this is not the time or the place. And I will be happy to expound upon the subject of Madonna in the future. For now, I’ll just say this: One of the things I’ve always loved about Madonna – and I know this is going to sound incredibly trite, but hey, we like different artists for very different reasons – is the fact that her songs just lift you up. No matter the type of day you’re having, you can’t listen to “Express Yourself”, “Into the Groove”, or “Holiday” and come away still having negative thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to any of these songs without at least allowing my shoulders to dance, sometimes more.
And so, if I am fortunate enough to live a long life, the funeral song should belong to the lighthearted end of the spectrum. “Holiday” is the perfect choice here. For starters, Madonna has played it at every tour but two, usually as the precursor to the two encores. She’s reinvented the song as a military-drill set-up, as a romp with lots of fabulous gay men and lots of fabulous polka dots, and as a disco-style party. And it always rocks. Either way, if a funeral is supposed to be a celebration of someone’s life — and aren’t all funerals really supposed to be as such? — the message of “Holiday” reflects that sentiment perfectly: “Put your troubles down, it’s time to celebrate.” Be sad some other day.
I’m thinking of my great-grandmother, Mary McCorry, who died at the age of 94 – officially due to kidney failure, unofficially because she had lived a really long time and something was bound to stop working. Mid-funeral, the undeniable sounds of polka wafted through the church rafters and walls, and the priest paused to sheepishly announce, “There’s a polka band practicing next door today …”
A few pews up, two of my cousins bent their heads and sucked in their cheeks, but to no avail: Everyone could see their shoulders shaking. And soon, the entire place must have been at least smiling, because the priest gave up and said, “Well, surely Mary would have enjoyed this, right?”
That’s the right attitude.