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