We Asked People to Pick Their Funeral Songs. It Got Deep Real Quick.
Top image: Johannes Roth/Unsplash

If you want to understand who someone is, listen to their Spotify playlist. Songs tend to reveal an important part of us that we often find difficult to communicate in words.

This is why my favourite anecdote is a story about this girl, a friend of a friend, who would go on Tinder dates and ask each date to share their favourite song, all of which would go on to be compiled in the form of a Spotify playlist.

When I first heard the story, her actions struck me as unusually intimate. She would be stuck with a personal memento of her dates, even if they never saw each other again after that night.

I recalled this story after listening to an episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, where listeners were asked for the songs they’d want played at their funeral. I wondered if the girl would have gotten deeper insight into the personalities of her dates, had she asked them for their swan songs instead.  

Inspired by both NPR’s podcast and this girl’s courage, I decided to ask the same from some people, young and old.

After all, you shouldn’t need a brush with death to be reminded of your mortality. You need only think about the songs you want played at your funeral.

Your funeral songs are not just a way to capture what defines you, but also your final chance to shape that last experience anyone has of you. Through this music, no one can interrupt or change the conversation. They can only sit back and listen.

And so when you think of the songs you want played, you might also think of them as a way to apologise to an estranged parent, express the unconditional love you have for a TV show that helped you through depression, or admit to the secret fling that changed your life. Whatever brings you reassurance.

Yet the two older folks I spoke to didn’t believe their funeral songs should necessarily reflect the essence of their lives.

For starters, my 61-year-old father would pick My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, Someone Like You by Adele, and My Sweet Lady by John Denver, because these songs “trigger good memories” for him.

Danny, another 60-something, tells me he’d go with rock songs, Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin and Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, because they reflect the best years of his life (i.e. the late 60s and early 70s) when he played in a band.

“I was very carefree and life was simple. I recall bringing the house down whenever I sang these songs. If I can turn back the clock, I’d want to travel back to these days. But it is impossible so I can only ‘rock on’ after death,” he says.

On the other hand, most of the younger people I know favour more upbeat songs for their funerals. Otherwise, they tend to have amusing reasons for picking unconventional funeral tunes.

I recall an ex once saying he’d pick one-hit wonder Tubthumping by Chumbawamba for his funeral, solely for the first two lines: “I get knocked down, but I get up again / You are never gonna keep me down.”

The relationship may not have been easy, but I still remember this hilarious anecdote with a certain fondness.

One close friend I spoke to would like Let Me by ZAYN to play, while another thinks Club Can’t Handle Me by Flo Rida is great. Arguably, both are anthems that might raise the dead instead of letting them rest in peace, but their reasons were simple: life should be a celebration, even at its end.

Similarly, two of my most cheerful friends, Sangeetha and Iffah, tell me that their funeral songs should make guests want to dance. No “wrist-slashing music” or “a bunch of people ugly-crying in a room” for them.

Sangeetha rattles off the three songs she’d pick: When People Go by Craig Cardiff, The Sound of Sunshine by Michael Franti & Spearhead, and Dog Days are Over by Florence + the Machine.

“The lyrics to When People Go are especially meaningful to me. I often grapple with mortality (not my own) and grief. This is a bit of a soul-stirring track, but the melody is paradoxically playful,” she says.

On Sangeetha’s old iPod, she even had a playlist dedicated to her potential funeral songs. If she ever starts a Spotify playlist for the same reason, she would title it, “Bye Bye, Baby”.

Iffah would also like Dog Days are Over by Florence + the Machine to play at her funeral. She describes the song as “surprisingly poignant”, while “cloaked in happy clapping and stomping, bells and Florence Welch’s joyful warble”.

She adds, “I want my funeral to be a happy procession, with an opportunity to be reflective about life in general rather than mine specifically. The song’s bridge is actually super sombre, so if anyone does want to cry, this is the time. The song swells up again after and ends with such a cheery flourish.”

Another song that Iffah chooses is I Am the Cosmos by Chris Bell. Not fully convinced by any religion’s idea of an afterlife, she believes in the romantic idea that the dead is “part of the air, part of the stars, part of the universe”.

“This Chris Bell song makes me feel like everyone who has ever lived is always swirling around me. I like that idea of infinite existence, though not to be confused with living forever,” she says.

Asking this question has also led me to discoveries about old friends. For example, I never knew a good friend of 11 years loved progressive rock until I posed him the question.

His funeral song would be Octavarium by Dream Theater, which showed him that songs didn’t need to be short and catchy.

“This band plays progressive rock, which is essentially rock music for music nerds. Octavarium is one of their more accessible songs, but lasts 24 minutes. It’s structured like an orchestral piece and speaks about life coming full circle,” he says.

“It also feels like quite a bit of your life has passed the first time you manage to sit through the full length of the song. I really like the idea of forcing people to sit down for a 24-minute song.”

With a couple of more introspective interviewees, they appreciated the personal question for how it forced them to examine the more significant moments in their lives.  

One of them, Ningfei, says that he would like 我怎能离开你 by Teresa Teng at his funeral. (The title loosely translates to “How can I bear to leave you?”) For him, the song brings back memories of childhood, where he would play the song from a CD in his father’s old BMW, a sentimental object for his “never sentimental” father.

He shares that the song also takes him back to his Chinese roots, and I ask if he feels that it’s important for him to stay connected to those roots.

“No, but it’s very complex. I want to, at different points and situations, to both shake it off and to take it up. There is pride, but there is scorn. It’s a part of me I cannot deny. It’s like a past life and a soft spot,” he replies.

Then there’s Esther, who gives me the vaguest answer.

She says, “My song has to be re:stacks by Bon Iver. One day, when I was feeling a bit tired of life in general, this song played. There was a kind of recognition and I knew this would be my funeral song. Go listen to it and you might understand what I mean.”

So I do, and she’s right; I do understand what she means. The song conveys what she feels, and through it, I hear what she didn’t have the words to express.

I listen to the song repeatedly, each time feeling the weight of life a little less.

As forthcoming as most of my interviewees were, some people I spoke to were reluctant to think about the question, and I sensed that they were uncomfortable talking about death.

Since death is generally considered taboo in popular culture, I wasn’t surprised.

However I’ve never shied away from discussing my mortality. I try to live without regrets, so I am ready to go whenever death takes me.

As for my funeral playlist, it should be generally celebratory with bouts of poignancy. But the song that needs to be played is Fix You by Coldplay, specifically for the instrumental bridge from 2:25 to 2:52, which roars into a composition of piano notes, electric and bass guitar riffs, and drums from 2:53 to 3:20.

Not unlike the kind of strength someone religious might get from prayer, the crescendo transports me into a semi-spiritual experience. No matter how messy, complicated, and illogical life gets, the 55 seconds always give me immense and renewed faith to carry on.

And even in death, I’d like there to be nothing more reassuring to the ones who remain than the knowledge that everything will be okay.

Tell us your funeral songs, send us a playlist, invite us to your final days: community@ricemedia.co.

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