Music at Funerals

Check out Todd Flowerday’s interesting ongoing discussion of the Order of Christian Funerals over at Catholic Sensibility:

My own sense is that the funeral repertoire leans strongly (in some parishes too much so) toward music based on biblical passages of comfort. That said, I’ve never quite discerned why the sequence Dies Irae is deemed fitting for the funeral rites.

Volume 3 of Antiphon has an interesting essay by respected theologian Owen Cummings, “How Adequate are the Postconciliar Catholic Funeral Rites?” Go find the article, if you can, and check out his interesting defense of the Dies Irae at funerals.


  1. As a music minister, I can say that ALL liturgical music including funeral music should be based on Scripture. But if the chant has to do with the concept of eternal life, and the deceased raising to new life with Christ in Heaven,then that is also appropriate. Funeral music is traditionally comforting, but it can also a reminder of the mysteries we celebrate during the Easter Triduum.

  2. I couldn’t get to either Tom’s or the other article, but it seems to me the best approach for funerals is to simply do the funeral rite, that is, the prescribed Entrance antiphon, Communion Antiphon and sing the correct and liturgical Song of Farewell and In Paradisium as the recessional. There are nice settings of this in English–forget the sappy hymns at these points. Of course if an additional Processional Hymn is needed as well as something at the Preparation and Holy Communion, I would advise flexibility from the pastoral point of view. My only experience with the Dies Irae was at a beautiful All Soul’s Mass in the Extraordinary Form. In fact I would prefer it in English for funerals as it doesn’t sugar coat death and the sense of loss that people should ritualize. I don’t think it obscures the resurrection either. I think we tend in our funeral Liturgy today to deny the finality of death in this life and its apocalyptic nature in terms of personal judgment and final judgment. A good English version of the Dies Irae as a Sequence even in the Ordinary Form and the inclusion of the Kyrie once again would be most helpful and reality based.

  3. Bring back the Dies Irae (sung in Latin with printed translation), and also Violet vestments. Enough with premature eschatology!

    1. Why not black? Of course the three choices allowed in the OF Funeral liturgy are white, black and violet. Black is prescribed for the EF, I don’t think violet was ever used in the USA although I believe it is the color of choice in most of Europe. Liturgists seem to have a real prejudice against black vestments. I hope that’s the extent of their prejudice.

      1. As for vestments, I suspect a lack of black is less prejudice and more pragmatism. Most commercial vestment makers provide the standard set of green, red, white, and violet. Rose is usually an independent acquisition. And one well-placed person with a major vestment company once told me that black vestments are a rare request hence more costly.

        If I were a priest, I would look to commission a white vestment with black and violet trim. No prejudice here.

        Also, Fr McDonald, you’ve misrepresented my name again. It is Todd, two d’s, no “m,” after the ob/gyn who helped my mother overcome infertility in the first thirteen years of her marriage. If a Christian name is preferred on your part, I suggest my baptismal name, Joseph.

  4. The link at the top of this entry is broken. It should lead here.

    Todd’s excellent series of blog entries on the OCF can be found here.

  5. More important than music, can we please end the homilies where the parish priest canonizes the deceased on his own? ‘We know grandma right now is in heaven.” Do we? We have this whole canonization process for nothing? I guess we don’t need to pray for the deceased anymore.

  6. Also, in terms of the pope’s new liturgical movement and hermeneutic of continuity, it would be great to restore the Agnus Dei for funerals with the correct endings, grant him/her rest, grant him/her eternal rest.

  7. The standard funeral fare as far as music seems to be speaking to the the needs of the mourners. However, I find singing too much of the “comfort” music is actually a disservice. The idea of a song telling someone not to worry, rejoice, don’t be afraid, when they’ve just lost a loved one is rather disingenuous. My approach when meeting with the family to plan the liturgy is to learn about the deceased usually just by listening to the conversation between the family, walk with them a little in their mourning, and explain that this wonderful funeral liturgy that the Church has handed down over the ages is principally about praying for the soul of their loved one. Rather than trying to convince folks who are grieving that everything is going to be ok, the liturgy gives them something very active and important to do, that is, pray for their loss.

  8. At the funeral of an elderly monk yesterday, we started with the Latin introit “Requiem” during procession of monks, then the congregational hymn “Remember those, O Lord,” by James Quinn which I found in the Adoremus Hymnal but printed up to the tune FRANCONIA. It speaks of the purification of the deceased, and our loving prayers for the deceased, with great tenderness and beauty. The resp ps was Proulx, “My soul is thirsting for you, my God,” which has a gentle pulse and slight bounce to it. Communion (sorry, not “Lux aeterna”) was “I received the living God,” which has a gentle joyfulness to it. Though it wasn’t my conscious plan, during the liturgy it occured to me that all this gave a nice balance of solemn seriousness in praying for the dead, and also confident hope in the living God which isn’t forced or artificial happiness. It was serious but not dreary, hopeful but not lightweight happiness. The triumphant end (after the usual In Paradisum in Latin) was “For All the Saints” – I know some think that this hymn denies purgatory, but I think it’s silent on the point, and a bit of eschatalogical triumph isn’t out of place at funerals either.

  9. When I started in my present parish, family requests were rather narrow and limited – and I can’t tell you how many people wanted to be carried in to “Hail Queen of Heaven” and out to the Lourdes Hymn.

    More recently, the most popular items include: Farrell’s “My soul is thirsting” and “Unless a grain of wheat”; Inwood’s “O blessed are those”; Walker’s “Like a child rests”; Sands’s “Song of Farewell” and homespun settings of Psalm 83 “How lovely is your dwelling place” and Psalm 24 “Answer me, O God”.

    I’m not quite sure why there has been a shift. Is to do with perception of the Funeral liturgy, the meaning of the texts, or simply having a greater repertoire to choose from?

  10. 2 funeral experiences today. First, the funeral of the grandmother of a classmate and a good homily combining the need for comfort with the need for continuing conversion. I come back to the rectory and am am called down to help with a family planning a funeral for Tuesday. They would like to know why they can’t sing Danny Boy as well as several other Irish folk and rebel songs. I know the songs and have sung them many times while holding a pint, but I had to explain to them what liturgy is and that the funeral is a sacrament of the Church. They stated that a few years ago in Georgia (not Fr. McDonald’s parish, surely) they were allowed to sing whatever they wanted. Now I am the bad guy and will have to deal with this for the wake and funeral Mass because someone somewhere wanted to be “pastoral=nice” and allow something inappropriate. This is why I often bring up the point of being “obedient” (I know how the editor loves the word) to the rite and liturgical principle because it makes the ministry of the rest of us that much harder to correct that which should not need correction.

    On another note, I always thought Fr. Joncas had a friend on the inside and there was a directive that Eagles Wings had to be included at every Catholic funeral.

  11. “They would like to know why they can’t sing Danny Boy as well as several other Irish folk and rebel songs.”

    It might be that some of these would be appropriate under the heading of personal reflection or sharing at the wake. Unless the “tradition” is to pray the rosary there and there has been little or no formation on the funeral rites as a whole.

    On the other hand, it’s been about 3-4 years since I’ve heard “On Eagles Wings” at a funeral. I guess its popularity is regional, or waxes and wanes with time.

    1. As traditional as I would like to be, I am pretty flexible pastorally except for allowing secular music of the Danny Boy type at Mass, but our music director is the bad gal for me in saying no to that which should not be included! But if it is in our hymnal, I can’t refuse and Eagle Wings and Be Not afraid are there and these are often the most requested and thus the most heard and thus the most requested for funerals. It’s a vicious cycle!

    2. It’s been 9-10 years since I’ve used “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Be Not Afraid” at a Sunday Liturgy. People have stopped asking why we don’t do it. The Sunday selections have been “Filled out” with other tunes, carefully chosen to match the day and that have great texts and tunes. However, they still ask for the latter at Funerals, and I’m happy to do it.

  12. Perhaps if parishes had on a quarterly basis a Mass for all the deceased members of the parish, they could feature a variety of music selections that people might be encouraged to consider for funeral masses. It also might enable members of the parish to learn some of these songs and also be a way to encourage parish members to attend funerals.

    Some parishes have an annual choir concert that provides selections for weddings, I suspect with the purpose of upgrading the quality of the music that is requested. While having a similar concert for funeral music might not work, the quarterly Masses might achieve the same effect.

  13. We did a “Music of All Souls” concert a few years ago, and some of those pieces have subsequently been requested by families. It was a nice opportunity for the choir to learn some more “advanced” music that we could offer for funerals in the future. One of the pieces was John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos. You wouldn’t think a family would ask for it because it is “on the nose” as far as describing death, but the family asked for it and we sang it, all 8-9 minutes, for the Preparation of the Gifts. It was very moving singing that piece as it was intended.

  14. John Bell’s text was written precisely to fill this pastoral need — the Danny Boy tune is thus transformed into a Song of Farewell:

    Go, silent friend,
    your life has found its ending:
    To dust returns your weary mortal frame.
    God, who before birth called you into being,
    Now calls you hence, his accent still the same.

    Go, silent friend,
    your life in Christ is buried;
    For you He lived and died and rose again.
    Close by His side your promised place is waiting
    Where, fully known, you shall with God remain.

    Go, silent friend,
    forgive us if we grieved you;
    Safe now in heaven, kindly say our name.
    Your life has touched us, that is why we mourn you;
    Our lives without you cannot be the same.

    Go, silent friend,
    we do not grudge your glory;
    Sing, sing with joy deep praises to your Lord.
    You, who believed that Christ would come back for you,
    Now celebrate that Jesus keeps his word.

    © 1996, WGRG, Iona Community. Administered in the US by GIA.

    1. We sang this just last week at the funeral of my wife’s uncle. I think it was the first time I had encountered it and thought it a fairly neat solution to the typical American “over-Irish” (Flannery O’Connor’s phrase) yearning for the Emerald Isle. It is perhaps a bit weak in purgatory, but I wouldn’t expect that to be something John Bell would be too keen on.

      We also sang Eagle’s Wings and How Great Thou Art, which in my experience have become almost canonical for funerals (the former more than the latter).

  15. I have threatened my daughters that, should they cause “On Eagles’ Wings” or “Be Not Afraid” to be sung at my funeral liturgy, I shall rise up from the casket (or urn, not quite sure yet) and personally beat them…I would much prefer the Taizé chant, which my youngest intoned & cantored at a Good Friday liturgy when she was only about 10 years old, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”…it certainly would seem to fit the occasion…and I would rest much easier!

    I recently had to argue with my stepsisters that “Be Not Afraid” not be used at my father’s funeral…the 2nd verse is tragically disgusting for any of us who have had a close relative (in my case, my son) die from drowning…

  16. Like Jeff Rice [see above #20] we in our parish also have an “Evening of Remembrance” – somewhere near All Soul’s day. Not a liturgy, but a choir program giving a variety of musical options, putting music on the horizon as available funeral repertoire. Invitations are sent to all those in the parish who have lost loved ones during the previous year; but the program is a public event open to anyone in the community.

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