Funeral Music

candleMy cousin Steve died unexpectedly a couple weeks ago, and I just returned from his memorial service in California. I was asked to organize and lead the service, and one of the challenges planning it this past week was choosing a song to sing. I eventually found a couple “church” songs—“One Eagle’s Wings” and “Be Not Afraid”—that were sung at Steve’s mom’s service years ago. But I also wanted to do a song closer to Steve’s tastes.

Steve was a hardcore classic rock fan. He loved “Freebird” by Lynard Skynard, for example. He’d sing along with it on the radio, and said once that he’d like it played at his funeral. So I considered playing a recording of it, but like most other rock songs I looked at, “Freebird” just isn’t right for a memorial service. It starts off OK, but the long, frenetic solo at the end would have given grieving loved ones no space to mourn. As I shot down “Freebird,” as well as several AC/DC, Creed, and even a Sarah McLachlan song (“Angel”–it was just too dark), I realized the song I was looking for needed to

  • be something he would have liked
  • have a peaceful energy level
  • offer some comfort

While sifting through Google’s search results for “Rock Funeral Songs,” I finally found it: “Long as I Can See the Light” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR’s a band most classic rockers love, but John Fogerty’s gritty voice, heavy drums, and crunchy guitar are tempered by smart lyrics that don’t follow the rock’s typical “I’m a bad-ass and I don’t need you” formula.

Steve led a troubled life, in and out of love, addiction, the police station, and contact with his family. The lyrics of “Long as I Can See the Light” matched Steve’s not fitting in with his family or society. And the symbol of the candle gives the song a spiritual element:

Put a candle in the window
‘Cause I feel I’ve got to move
I’m going, I’m going–I’ll be coming home soon
Long as I can see the light.

Pack my bag and let’s get moving
‘Cause I’m bound to drift a while.
I’m going, I’m going—You won’t have to worry no more
Long as I can see the light.

Guess I got that old travelin’ bone
‘Cause this feeling won’t leave me alone
But I won’t, I won’t lose my way
Long as I can see the light.

In addition to the CCR song, the service included the participation of many family and friends telling stories, reading prayers, and a gorgeous sax performance of “Amazing Grace.” On the whole, it was a profoundly moving outpouring of love for a man who, despite his troubles, will be deeply missed.

At the reception, an 8-year-old relative who I hadn’t met strode up to me and asked if I was famous. It turns out she’s enamoured with guitar and, by association, me. I told her I wasn’t famous, but that there were lots of other reasons to learn to play music besides being famous—making parties and holidays more fun, making friends in high school, etc.

What I didn’t say, but what I was thinking, was that it had helped me give my cousin a proper burial.

Comments 6

  1. Excellent article. Beautifully and thoughtfully written. I too have lost serveral special & troubled people over the years. I like to believe that they are now in a better place – at peace.
    I come to your website on occasion to try to find some material, as I am a guitar teacher myself. Thanks for your years of contributions to society!!!
    Brian Splatt

  2. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to pick out a song to sing for a loved one that passed away.

    Hearing “Amazing Grace” on the saxophone was probably really neat though however. I hope that you’re handling everything well since then.

  3. Awesome story, man. Thanks for putting so much thought into your cousin’s funeral service and making it a special memory for yourself, his family, and the young relative. Bless you!

  4. I’m actually going through this process at the moment. My father is terminally ill with cancer and we’ve been trying to put together the music for the last few weeks. the CCR song was on his list believe it or not. He asked me to play Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes have always been Cowboys” as well. And “We’re All in this thing together” by Old Crow Medicine Show has proven to be one the best songs I’ve found when dealing with death.

    Good article man, I’m sorry about your loss, and know that music is what keeps the light on in most of our lives.

    – Mike

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