Funeral Music Around the World

Death is not the end.

Ultimate Guitar
Funeral Music Around the World

From the very first day on this earth and throughout life the music accompanies us. It educates, entertains, highlights significant events and sometimes it is just the background of everyday life. When you're young you listen to slow sounds of a lullaby in a soothing voice of your mother, later you get children's songs about all kinds of mammoths and tigers, love and friendship etc. Growing up a person begins to form their musical tastes, sometimes going to extremes. But sooner or later there comes a time when there should be a final tune. Usually similar the begining of your life the tune is not a consequence of your musical taste. Lately though it became possible to pre-arrange funeral according to your tastes.

In one of the tribes of Equatorial Guinea the musician at the funeral is one of the most respected duties along with the shaman and a rain spellcaster. This craft is passed from generation to generation and the future virtuoso must not only learn to play instruments (drums "nben", "ncou"), but also to learn all the funeral ritual dogmas, including funeral songs, special "Mekue" dance, prayers, and ceremonies of sacrifice. To a tribe member the Euripean tradition to play Chopin's Funeral March must seem a bit crazy.

Chopin's Funeral March is actually the third movement of Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. The sonata was published in 1839, but the Funeral March was finished earlier. The composer actually wrapped the rest of his sonata around the mournful march. Ironically Federic Chopin became the first person who was buried with this music. Later the March became the official funeral music for most of the countries of the world.

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No one knows for sure who had the idea to play music at the funeral first. The first funeral melodies can be found in the early religious beliefs of the mankind. The same is true for the origin of most of the modern Requiems. The very etymology of the word "Requiem" is directly related to ecclesiastical Latin word short for "Requiem aeternamdonaeis, Domine", that is "Oh Lord, grant them an eternal peace". Originally in the XV — XVI centuries of our era, the Requiem was a part of the funeral mass, celebrated in the honor of nobles in Catholic countries. A little later they became independent musical pieces. The author of the most famous Requiem is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He wrote his work just before his own death, which caused a number of mystical speculations. Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi dedicated his famous Requiem to his best friend. There is also such thing as the "Symphony-Requiem in memory of Vladimir Lenin" composed by Dmitry Kabalevsky in memory of the deceased leader of the proletariat. During the time of French bourgeois revolution people were buried under the François-Joseph Gossec funeral march. In 19th century Austria and Germany the funeral march was Gustav Mahler's 5th Symphony.

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Eastern countries have an entirely different approach for funeral. In China the loved ones are seed off to the last journey to the accompaniment of firecracker explosions and other sound effects. Funeral procession in Japan is accompanied by the Kodo drum sounds. Indian tradition dictates to sing mantras and play various folk instruments. In some Muslim countries to play music at a funeral is generally considered a blasphemy.

Chinese funeral with firecrackers

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Japanese funeral drums

Also there's such thing as New Orleans jazz funeral. The tradition blends strong European and African cultural influences. Louisiana's colonial past gave it a tradition of military style brass bands which were called on for many occasions, including playing funeral processions. This was combined with African spiritual practices, specifically the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Jazz funerals are also heavily influenced by early twentieth century African American Protestant and Catholic churches, black brass bands, and the Haitian Voodoo’s idea of celebrating after death in order to please the spirits who protect the dead. Another group that has influenced jazz funerals is the Mardi Gras Indians.

The tradition was widespread among New Orleans across ethnic boundaries at the start of the 20th century. As the common brass band music became wilder in the years before World War I, some white New Orleanians considered the hot music disrespectful, and such musical funerals became rare among the city's white citizens. After the 1960s, it gradually started being practised across ethnic and religious boundaries. Some typical pieces often played at jazz funerals are the slow, and sober song «Nearer my God to Thee» and such spirituals as "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". The later more upbeat tunes frequently include "When The Saints Go Marching In” and "Didn't He Ramble".

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God knows, maybe one day in the distant or near future some great composer will compose a funeral song that will be able to raise the dead. Let’s hope not, though.

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I played "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" at my fathers funeral last year.  The perfect song to capture all the emotions of losing someone close.
    As a funeral director I just have to say that this sounds very fitting in a very bittersweet kind of way. I can only imagine how that must have been for you. I think those are the types of emotions you need out of a song at a funeral.
    There is this amazing funeral march usually played in Czechia and Slovakia (and maybe other european countries) named Eternal sleep.
    I'm going to ask for Back in Black to be played at my funeral because that song is so electric, I'm pretty sure I'll jump out of my casket and live for a couple more days before dying again.
    I want the song "Ashes" by Pallbearer to be played at my funereal...while I'm at it, I want the members of Pallbearer to be Pallbearers at my funereal...OK, while the members of Pallbearer are at my funereal doing their Pallbearer duties, they may as well play "Ashes" live for my friends and family. However, this is just a dream, as I will live to be 107 and have my kids changing MY diaper…at least that’s the plan.