A Soundtrack for Mourning: Music’s Power in Grief

“There is nothing else that can meet us in our heartbreak, elevate our spirits, move us to laughter and let us dream in the way that music can,” Chris Sikora recently wrote in the New York Times. In this time of loss, the San Diego hospice chaplain tells us, we need music now, more than ever.

“When grief renders words inadequate, music can give a voice to overwhelming visceral emotion,” the Conversation website further explains, illustrating this with a story of spontaneous singing that took place at a Manchester memorial.

Whether a music lover chooses to have their cremated remains turned into a record or a composer creates a meditation on grief and loss, the power of song is undeniable. Many studies have shown the connection between music and healing whether mourners are writing original songs or listening to mixtapes from the couch as they grieve.

If you are choosing music for a loved one’s memorial or funeral, whether online or a small, safe, outdoor gathering, you’ll want to consider these four tips.

Even virtual music has its own set of considerations and some streaming services will block copyrighted music. Original music or a hymn or folk song are options that avoid copyright headaches. As a side note, singing together online is possible, but not as easy as it appears. Choirs have found ways to record and edit audio or mute participants led by a soloist.

Consider the tone
Decide what music is appropriate for your loved one’s memorial or funeral: solemn, poignant, celebratory or lighthearted? Then consider if you would prefer one cohesive tone, or if it makes sense for there to be different moods during different parts of the service. Find 5 more tips about selecting music for funerals here.

Look to family and friends for input
Reach out to friends and family, letting them know that you are pulling together a musical selection for a funeral, memorial or celebration of life. Decide if you want to personalize the music to reflect a musical genre that was a favorite of your loved one. Choose between classic or popular songs, or consider a mix.

Carefully read or listen to the lyrics of each song
This is time-consuming, but sometimes the lyrics of a song can be surprising and may not be what you had hoped for your loved one’s memorial or funeral. Listen carefully and read the lyrics online.

Pre-pandemic, the most popular song in a UK survey of funeral and memorial song choices was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Whatever music you choose to memorialize  a loved one, whether in a service or as you grieve for them (or both), there is no single or right choice. Just remember, as chaplain Sikora reminds us, the power of music to “fuel our dreams and embolden hope.”


Photo by Mitchel Lensink

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