What will they play at your funeral?

By Marcia Miller
What music do you want to be played at your funeral? How would you like to be remembered? What is meaningful about your life now that you would like to be expressed after you are gone? How might your music choices support your grieving friends? Do you know, really know, that one day, perhaps even today, you are going to die?
One of the most joyful and meaningful lunches I had recently was with David Maywhoor. He is the keeper of the funeral music for his “tribe” of friends. This circle of friends, many friends since the 1970s, worked together as part of the “War on Poverty.” This “family by choice,” born in the crucible of social commitment, worked hard and played hard and when their friends died they helped the families at the memorial services and funerals. At one point David realized that just after someone dies is a very hard time to make any decision, including meaningful decisions about the ceremony that celebrates a life. “What music would you like at your funeral?” became his refrain. This question generated lists; he created his own as did many friends. And suddenly he was the keeper of the lists.
As we sat at lunch over miso soup and sushi, I asked if he could show me any of the lists. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a stack of old postcards of all sizes held together with a rubber band. I had tingles and goose-bumps all over my body as I reached for these sacred cards—the cards of people who were contemplating their own mortality. The card on top was the card for David’s first wife, Carol, who died of cancer many years ago. Hers was the first death after he started to keep the cards. There were 4 or 5 songs listed on this card and I asked which ones they had played—“All of them.” At a funeral he dreaded, the music was already chosen, and it was perfect for him, the family and their many friends. As he talked about the songs, he remembered each one with a kind of fondness—each one just right for this devastating occasion.
Looking at the cards felt a bit like reading someone’s journal, yet I also found them deeply inspiring and in many cases full of humor. More than one person listed their songs and then urged everyone to have a big party after the ceremony. Many asked that one or more of their songs be played by Steve, a member of their community who plays the guitar. Judging by the cards he plays a mean Guantanamero. I thought of Steve and what it would be like to play at a friend’s funeral—how impossible and how wonderful that would be—I choked up at the thought of it.
I was surprised at how much curiosity and pleasure I had while reading over the cards and I lingered over each one. Every type of music imaginable was included, from gospel to blues to rock and roll to the rags of Scott Joplin. Amazing Grace was listed often but so was Stand by Me. Peggy Lee was represented with “Is that all there is” along with the Ashokan Farewell (remember the PBS special, The Civil War?). People listed Gregorian Chants and Jefferson Airplane, Cat Stevens and Eric Burdon and the Animals.

I was especially moved to see that people updated the cards as they aged and changed their minds about what was important to them. That suggested an ongoing conversation between them and David and perhaps within themselves as well. At one point in our lunch David said that this ritual of keeping the music list had been “a way to have this conversation about death.” I could imagine a friend coming up to him and saying he wanted to make a change on his card. And that more could be said, or not, but that they would both feel that something important had happened.
Standing in the presence of death, for me, is the great truth of all our lives. We WILL die, just as everyone who has ever lived has or will die. This truth orients me to the purpose of my life and invites me to feel the gratitude I have for so many moments in it. Nothing is promised and nothing is taken for granted. Babies die; grandparents die; friends die. And what is left, what continues on is Love.

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2 Responses to What will they play at your funeral?
  1. nancy belay

    Although I am not ready to go yet, I have already thought of this. My songs would be This Must be Heaven and Who Wants to Live Forever by Freddie Mercury and Queen.

  2. maureen

    I have often thought about what I want at my funeral, including music that reflected what moved me. I will now start this with a friend or 2 .