Songs for funerals when it's complicated

Choosing music can be hard after suicide, loss of faith or with strained relationships. We can help.

When someone dies, sadness isn’t always the only emotion. There can be anger, confusion, numbness, fear, guilt, and unanswered questions.

You might feel that traditional, popular funeral songs don’t cut it. You’re not ready to tie everything up with a bow, and bid a fond farewell with a comfortable hymn. 

Music can still be a great comfort. We have gathered some songs here that face up to the messy reality of life and death, and might give you a chance to reflect when things are complicated. 

Simon and Garfunkel - The Sound of Silence

Hello darkness my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again

This song was chosen for one of the most memorable funerals we have ever experienced, where the emotions around the death, which was a suicide, were complex and layered. In this haunting song, silence and darkness are the constant ‘friend’ to a troubled and turbulent mind. 

Nick Cave - Into My Arms 

And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you

The singer in this song has a complicated relationship with Christianity, that’s at odds with the simpler faith of a loved one. Although they disagree on the existence of angels and the role of God, their love for one another endures regardless. Nick Cave performed this song at the funeral of his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence. 

Barbra Streisand - The Way We Were

What's too painful to remember
We simply to choose to forget

Things aren’t always straightforward in relationships, and memories from a long history come to the fore when you’re saying goodbye. It can feel dishonest not to recognise that things weren’t always perfect, so this song allows a space where you don’t need to pretend that they were. 

Sarah McLachlan - Angel

You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

Written for a friend who had died from a heroin overdose, this beautiful song identifies with people who seek to escape from the world in one way or another. It imagines how they feel, and what might be behind their actions. Sarah McLachlan said that the song is about "trying not to take responsibility for other people's problems and trying to love yourself at the same time".

Simon and Garfunkel - Bright Eyes

How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?

We have seen the impact of this song firsthand, at a funeral where the death had been a tragic shock. However it was written with the lyricist’s father in mind who was terminally ill and whose death was expected soon. Death can be shocking whether it’s expected or unexpected, and the recurring questions throughout this song express how hard it can be to accept when it suddenly becomes your reality.

Karen Akers/Sutton Foster - Flight 

Let me lift from the ground til my soul is in flight … 
Wish me on my way

This song is an exhilarating flight in itself, giving a powerful sensation of breaking free, lifting off the ground and finally gaining your freedom. A breathtaking moment of escapism, whether you’re seeking escape from your own grief, or imagining your loved one’s newfound freedom wherever they are now. This song can be sung by a soloist, or as a stunning duet for two women. 

Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah

Love is not a victory march,
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

People have interpreted this legendary song in many different ways. There is a complex relationship at its heart, as well as a relationship with God. It can feel like a genuine prayer, or a cynical pastiche of one. Or just a recognition that your faith has become complicated, and will need to work harder now. Leonard Cohen said, “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.'” 

Coldplay - Fix You

When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Written for Gwyneth Paltrow when her father was dying, this song recognises grief and sadness in all its irrational backwardness, and yet still offers a ray of hope. It can be so important to feel that your grief is acknowledged by those around you before you can start to accept help from them, and this song could express a little of what you might be feeling. 

Noel Harrison/Dusty Springfield - Windmills Of Your Mind

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel

Talking about this song, the writer said, "You know when you try to fall asleep at night and you can't turn your brain off and thoughts and memories tumble." We all know that feeling when our minds start to spiral, and it can be common during a difficult bereavement. This song lives in the space before everything lands, when your mind hasn't even stopped long enough yet to begin to grieve.

Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn - The Water

The water sustains me without even trying
The water can't drown me, I'm done
With my dying

This modern folk song offers a calm idea of death as floating downstream in a little boat on a river; needing to leave the land you knew behind and give yourself up to the waves and the current. It's a melancholy song but it’s also a lovesong to nature, with the water, the sun, and the stars passing by as the little boat makes its journey. Recorded by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, it’s beautiful as a duet. 

John Martyn - Just Now

Searching back for the friends I've known
Sometimes sad for the way it's grown

With a wistful and maybe even remorseful feel, this song is about having regrets in your life, perhaps neglecting relationships while searching for yourself, but eventually finding yourself here in the present moment nonetheless. It's a self-reflective song from a songwriter who battled with alcohol and drug abuse during his life.

Don McLean - Vincent

Now, I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity…
Perhaps they'll listen now

This song was written in tribute to the artist Vincent van Gogh, who took his own life. The singer honours all the beauty that van Gogh tried to show the world, recognises his struggles and sorrows, and brings us to understand why he chose to die. It’s a way to empathise with someone who has made this choice, and come to terms with the reasons why they might have made it. 

If you would like to contribute a song to this list that has helped you, please email us.

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