Spare me karaoke hits. When my time is up, I just pray the con­gre­ga­tion will belt out the clas­sics

Daily Mail - - News - TOM UTLEY

ASURVEY this week by Co-op Funer­al­care high­lights one of the most pro­found so­cial changes of my life­time.

In my book, it is also one of the sad­dest. This is the find­ing that, for the first time ever, the list of the top ten songs most often re­quested at fu­ner­als con­tains not a sin­gle tra­di­tional hymn.

Ap­par­ently, all the old favourites that echoed through school as­sem­bly halls and chapels in my childhood — The Lord Is My Shep­herd, Rock Of Ages, Abide With Me, etc. — have been dis­lodged by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Rob­bie Wil­liams and even Eric Idle of Monty Python fame.

Most de­press­ing of all, in my view, is that My Way — Frank Si­na­tra’s 1969 an­them to bloody-minded, self­ish in­di­vid­u­al­ism — now seems a per­ma­nent fix­ture at the top of the funeral charts, where it first ap­peared at least ten years ago when I com­plained about it last.

I re­alise that many read­ers will say I’m a dread­ful hyp­ocrite, since I’ve often writ­ten that I’m a very bad Catholic who strug­gles to be­lieve Christ’s teach­ing and gave up reg­u­lar church­go­ing longer ago than I care to re­mem­ber.

I envy those who have faith, the ul­ti­mate comfort, but I’ve so far lacked the hu­mil­ity to sub­mit to it — ex­cept on and off, and far more often off than on.

Trendy

De­spite all this, I lament the de­cline of Chris­tian­ity in Bri­tain, of which the Co-Op sur­vey of the 100,000 fu­ner­als it con­ducts ev­ery year is only the lat­est ev­i­dence.

I’m also de­ter­mined that my own funeral should take place in a church. Prefer­ably, it will fol­low the Or­der for the Burial of the Dead laid down in that mas­ter­piece, the 1662 Book of Com­mon Prayer (though brought up a Catholic, I at­tended Church of Eng­land schools and have loved the BCP since I first be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of our lan­guage) — though I’d set­tle hap­pily for the 1928 ver­sion.

Above all, I want the con­gre­ga­tion to sing along lustily to the good old hymns that ev­ery­one knows — or, rather, hymns ev­ery­one used to know be­fore trendy vic­ars and right-on head teach­ers aban­doned them in favour of more ‘rel­e­vant’ ca­coph­o­nies of tam­bourines and elec­tric gui­tars.

That’s one of the un­hap­pi­est things about these chang­ing times.

Hymns, both An­cient and Mod­ern, used to be among the in­vis­i­ble ties that held our na­tion to­gether, like our com­mon at­tach­ment to the monar­chy or the BBC.

What­ever our reli­gious be­liefs, or lack of them, they were part of our shared her­itage — the same words and tunes, belted out at morn­ing as­sem­bly by Chris­tian, Jewish and Mus­lim chil­dren alike, whether at a posh pub­lic school or the lo­cal sec­ondary mod­ern.

In­deed, these hymns united much of the English-speak­ing world — as the un­for­tu­nates at my lunchtime lo­cal will be able to tes­tify, af­ter hear­ing an Aus­tralian and a Bri­tish-South African friend join me yes­ter­day in a rous­ing cho­rus of Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven.

A good funeral, surely, should be a flock­ing to­gether (the lit­eral mean­ing of ‘con­gre­ga­tion’) of those who knew and loved the de­ceased — and noth­ing, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, brings peo­ple to­gether more ef­fec­tively than singing a hymn we all know.

The fact is that very few peo­ple can sing along to some­thing like Over The Rain­bow (No.3 in the Co-Op’s chart), Rob­bie Wil­liams’s An­gels (No.5) or Ed Sheeran’s Su­per­mar­ket Flow­ers (No.6) with­out sound­ing like rev­ellers at a karaoke evening, out of time and out of tune.

All right, I grant you that it’s easy to sing along to the sim­ple tune of Eric Idle’s Al­ways Look On The Bright Side Of Life (No.10), from the cru­ci­fix­ion scene at the end of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. But can it re­ally be wise to despatch a beloved friend or re­la­tion into the Great Un­known to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a song that pokes fun at the New Tes­ta­ment? What if it’s all true?

As for My Way, the last thing I want to do is up­set any­one who has laid a loved one to rest to the strains of Ol’ Blue Eyes, much of whose work I love (no­body has matched his ren­di­tions of Mack The Knife, Some­thing Stoopid or New York, New York — though plenty have tried).

Dig­nity

It’s just that My Way, with its mes­sage of ‘I’m all that mat­ters and to hell with ev­ery­one else’, seems to me par­tic­u­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate for an en­counter with death, the great lev­eller and the fate that awaits us all.

As the BCP puts it so sim­ply: ‘ We brought noth­ing into this world, and it is cer­tain we can carry noth­ing out.’

But I sup­pose my great­est ob­jec­tion to pick­ing sec­u­lar, ephemeral pop songs for a funeral is that they triv­i­alise death, rob­bing it of its solem­nity and dig­nity.

Yes, I’m an ag­nos­tic who finds faith very hard to achieve. But if my widow and sons com­ply with my wishes, as I’m sure they will, I’ll be far from the first on/off be­liever to be given a Chris­tian send-off.

As for my choice of hymns for the ser­vice, these vary as often as my se­lec­tions for Desert Is­land Discs — and I re­serve the right to re­peat­edly change my mind. But the strong­est con­tenders, for the minute at least, are Lord Of All Hope­ful­ness; Je­sus, Lover Of My Soul; and, as a rous­ing fi­nale, For All The Saints Who From Their Labours Rest.

At the risk of try­ing the con­gre­ga­tion’s pa­tience by drag­ging the ser­vice out for too long, I’m tempted to add the hymn we al­ways sang on the last day of term at my board­ing prep school: God Be With You Till We Meet Again.

I sus­pect my for­mer school­mates at Or­well Park, if no one else, will un­der­stand when I say that more than half a cen­tury since I left, I can’t hear that tune strike up with­out feel­ing some­thing of the ela­tion of the ap­proach­ing hol­i­day.

But if my hymn choices are sub­ject to change, two fea­tures of my ideal ob­se­quies re­main con­stant. First, I want a bit of Chopin’s Funeral March — not the dirge of the first move­ment (dum dum di-dum, dum di- dum di- dum di- dum) but the sweet, up­lift­ing sec­ond move­ment (dum, dum-di dum-di dum dum dum…)

Or­deal

Oth­er­wise, I in­sist on a read­ing of Love (III), by the early 17th- cen­tury poet Ge­orge Her­bert. Our four sons can draw straws to de­cide which of them faces the or­deal of read­ing it aloud.

As it hap­pens, it wasn’t un­til the funeral two years ago of a dear friend and col­league that I con­cen­trated prop­erly on the words. He was an avowed athe­ist, who had in­sisted on a sec­u­lar ser­vice. But his choice of Love (III), with its ref­er­ence to Christ’s sac­ri­fice for our sins (‘Who bore the blame?’) made me think even he shared the deep-seated hu­man yearn­ing for faith.

Though it will be fa­mil­iar to many, I make no apol­ogy for re­peat­ing its three sub­limely sim­ple verses in full:

Love bade me wel­come. Yet my soul drew back. Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-ey’d Love, ob­serv­ing me grow slack From my first en­trance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly ques­tion­ing If I lack’d any­thing. ‘A guest,’ I an­swer’d, ‘wor­thy to be here’; Love said: ‘You shall be he.’ ‘I the un­kind, the un­grate­ful? Ah, my dear, I can­not look on thee.’ Love took my hand, and smil­ing did re­ply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’ ‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame Go where it doth de­serve.’ ‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’ ‘My dear, then I will serve.’ ‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’

So I did sit and eat.

I defy any­one to tell me that My Way of­fers a more poignant send- off at the fi­nal cur­tain.

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