It started how they usually start. I walked slowly in front of the coffin, the family following behind, and as the casket was placed on the catafalque the funeral director guided the mourners into their seats. It was an intimate service, maybe fifteen people there in all, but the empty seats on the front row made it clear that some of the closest family members hadn’t yet come in to the chapel.
All of this was happening to a soundtrack. The man whose life we were remembering had partied hard, and was amazed to make it to sixty. He was funny, rebellious and had refused to wear shoes for several years. I really wish I’d met him. He also had excellent taste in music, including The Pogues and Bob Marley, and he was carried into the chapel to the classic track, Redemption Song.
When Bob Marley wrote it, he was living with pain of cancer and an acute awareness of his own mortality. Redemption Song is written in G Major, regarded in the Baroque era as a key of benediction, of blessing, but it’s more commonly known as ‘the people’s key’.
As human beings we absorb music into our physical selves. It pours into our ears, pricks our skin, rattles our bones, and changes the way our hearts beat. Music forms memories and associations so strong that people with dementia, not able to recognise their own children, can recall a song they heard fifty years ago. A short sequence of notes can lift our spirits or break our hearts, make our feet dance or root them to the earth.
So there they were, the family, ready to walk behind their loved one, and as soon as the music started and Marley’s raw call soared to the rafters, they suddenly found themselves immobilised by a fierce grief. They literally couldn’t move.
Many people try so hard to hold it together at funerals. I don’t mean the people who are just numb, feeling nothing. I mean the people who sit there, eyes down, jaw rigid, creating a physical barrier between themselves and the words that remind them of their loss. But as soon as music fills the room, their defences crumble. It’s too powerful.
We listened to Redemption Song, empty seats pulsing, and waited to see if the rest of the family would come in. And without turning round, we knew they had. A woman was walking slowly down the aisle, arms wrapped around her distraught daughters. We knew she was there because she was singing, quietly but clearly. She was looking straight ahead and singing for strength, for her grieving daughters, and for her dead brother. She was singing from her very bones.
And then another voice joined in, and another, and another, until everyone who knew the song had formed a bereaved and ramshackle choir. It was spontaneous and exquisitely raw. This was a non-religious service, but I’ve never known anything feel more like a hymn in my life.
The mother and her daughters took their seats in front of the oak coffin and everyone sang and cried until the song finished. This gentle act of solidarity set the tone for the whole service, creating space for uninhibited belly laughs as well as heartfelt sobs. It brought them closer together. It gave them ownership of this formal, strange environment and even more importantly, ownership of their grief.
It was a small moment in the big scheme of things, lasting for just minutes, but I left the crematorium feeling deeply moved and like I’d learned something that I didn’t understand yet.
Just so you know, the final piece of music was ‘Streams of Whiskey’ by the Pogues, and yes, they all stamped their feet and clapped in time.