NB Excuse the somewhat brutal title. The parallels with a certain ex-member of Roxy Music will become clear.
There are very few occasions in life or death when there is an absolute necessity for music (although us music obsessed types might kid ourselves otherwise). Weddings clearly fit the bill. There is a need for something to mark the beginning and end of the ceremony. From the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, through the Wedding March to whatever secular selection you can think of, music plays its part.
Music fulfils a similar function at funerals too.
I found this out all recently but was caught somewhat off guard. My Dad died in early March after an unexpected and horrible six-month illness. We all knew pretty much from the point of diagnosis that there was only one way it was going to end. He bravely and stoically recognised this. He was a somewhat pragmatic man and we both contain a significantly sized planning gene, a desire to get the occasion right. He therefore immediately started designing his own funeral.
We’d had an unfortunate spate of deaths in the family so we knew what was required to be done. My mum had died almost five years earlier and Dad had needed to try and occupy his mind since her passing. He was always drawn to a hobby. His normal go-to would have been gardening but he couldn’t bear to be on his own in the beautiful oasis that they have both created. Every time he planted a new shrub, trimmed a piece of lawn, rearranged the garden furniture – he’d stand back to admire his handiwork and Mum wasn’t there. It was breaking his heart so he let it go and looked for something new.
He went for the ukulele – easy to play and you get results relatively quickly. He joined a local group and quickly formed a new bunch of acquaintances. He was incredible in that way. I go on holiday to escape people and replace them with a new experience. Mum and Dad went away and came back with a new bunch of mates to share Christmas cards with and meet up again twelve months later.
Dad being Dad, playing the ukulele wasn’t enough. He wanted to build one too. He found a luthier, Pete Howlett, in Wales who hosted courses whereby, using his jigs, five days later you would be leaving his Snowdonian studio with a new instrument in your hands. He fell in love with the creative process and went back for more. In short order, his house started filling up with the little instruments. There was the progressively more elaborate hand made ones. There were cheap Chinese imports to play around and learn on and take on holiday without fear of them getting damaged. There were baritone ukuleles, which were tuned to the same voicing as a guitar which I was able to pick up and play. There was a Venezuelan Cuatros with a horrifically high action that I thought was just plain horrible to pluck away at.
As Dad’s illness progressed, he became more insistent that certain people got certain ukuleles. “So and so should have this one, so and so should have that one”. It was bewildering, given that every time I opened a cupboard I found another one of the bloody things. He became somewhat bed bound and I decided one day that we should parade the ukes in front of him and stick a piece of paper on each denoting who was to benefit from the very specific inheritance.
And so when it came to chose the music for his own funeral he went for two uke based pieces. The first was the late Israel Kamakawiwoole’s medley of Over The Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. This would be his entrance music. He wanted something joyous and secular and this seemed to fit the bill for him.
On the day, of his funeral we entered the church last as the principal mourners and heard the music only briefly before his coffin was laid down by his bearers, his morris dancing friends (and there’s another story in itself), having walked through a guard of honour provided by the local scout group.
He needed music to leave the church. He chose, at face value, a somewhat unprepossessing piece of music. I’ll See You in My Dreams was written in 1924 by Isham Jones with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Kahn was both prolific and brilliant and went on to write Makin’ Whoopee, It Had To Be You and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Dad’s choice was spot on.
Lips that once were mine
Tender eyes that shine
They will light my way tonight
I’ll see you in my dreams
I was convinced he was seeing Mum, calling him back to be together. The funeral was an extraordinary occasion, a standing room only event and by this point, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The version that he went for was bog brush haired British music great Joe Brown. I’d seen him play on the song on DVD at the 2002 Concert for George. It was a lovely couple of hours that captured the spirit of my favourite Beatle from his spiritual searching with Ravi Shankar through to his collaborations with the Wilburys via the beauty of his own underrated material with the Fab Four.
Joe’s version closed the show. His performance is pitched perfectly. No over-emoting, no weeping or wailing, Joe reins in the emotions with a just a slight straining in his voice to reach the ascending melody in the chorus, bringing a very human touch to one of George’s favourite songs. He loved the instrument and he used to watch George Formby movies in his home cinema with his mate Bob Dylan. Joe’s turn ends as flowers flutter down from the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall as they have so often at Remembrance services for those that fell in conflict.
I’d got a problem though. Through Dad’s meticulous planning we knew the venue of his wake, the buffet that he wanted, what everyone should wear. But there was a gap that he hadn’t considered though and by the time we realised it, he was gone, passing away with us all around him at the wonderful Mary Stevens Hospice in Stourbridge.
He had chosen a church service followed by a committal at the local crematorium. We needed entrance and exit music for Dad’s last earthly journey. Bloody hell, that was a tough one. No one sets the criteria, the appropriateness. I googled possibilities and was filled with mild dread. The usual suspects were the Robbie Williams’ sickly Angels or Whitney’s overegging of Dolly’s I Will Always Love You. It wasn’t Dad’s cup of tea and it sure as hell wasn’t mine.
The funeral directors assured us that the crematorium had Spotify so the world was pretty much our oyster. We sat in Dad’s living room, auditioning pieces whilst preparing for the day. We set ourselves a few guidelines. The cremation service was for close friends and family. We knew everyone would be raw from the first service at the church and therefore something peaceful and soothing seemed to be required.
We took the decision that words weren’t required. Everyone’s heads would be full of their own thoughts and memories and we wanted Joe Brown’s performance to remain in their consciousness.
It had to be an instrumental piece. I knew immediately where to go. In Dad’s final days he was drifting away. We took it in shifts to be in the room with him and in my turn, I took to reading the football reports from the newspaper as a way of filling the silence with a voice. After weeks and months of his illness, we’d exhausted many paths of conversation. We’d said everything that needed to be said. When I’d run out of telling him about Wolves latest exploits or our travails in trying to buy a house, I started playing ambient music by the likes of Brian Eno through my phone. It was peaceful and unobtrusive and seemed perfect. There was a certain irony to it too as Eno had come up with the idea in a hospital bed whilst recovering from being knocked down by a London cab in 1975.
So there would be an Eno piece. We tried 1/1 and Thursday Afternoon but felt they were barely there, a little too subtle and unengaging. It was to be An Ending (Ascent) for Dad’s last journey as the curtains closed. It was uplifting and celestial, leaving everyone with a sense of Dad moving along.
The arrival music was Nils Frahm’s My Friend The Forest. I’d written about this previously but loved the melody but also the intimacy of the recording. Listen closely and you can hear Frahm’s fingers touching the keys, the hammer rebounding gently on the strings.
There’s another paradox too. The music I chose was ambient, background. Its music that exists whilst you are doing something else, even if that something else is doing nothing. You don’t sing along to it or whistle the melody. You didn’t tap your toe. It was barely meant to be there. And yet here was one of those few occasions that absolutely required something to fill the void and yet there were no rules, no guidelines. Eno has given us a little guiding hand in his album titles (Music for Airports, Music for Films). He’d identified their purpose, however postmodern he was being in selecting neutral music for neutral spaces.
We needed background music to be brought into the foreground and looking back a few weeks later I think it worked. It was a tough call but I felt that I could bring a little of my personality to Dad’s passing.
A few things that have struck me since Dad’s funeral.
Firstly I read David Hepworth’s latest book Nothing Is Real, a collection of his writing where he demonstrates that the Beatles were underrated and is well worth a read. There were two chapters that resonated with me. One was Hepworth being asked to provide the music for a friend’s wedding celebration which he calibrates to perfection, his considerations similar to the ones that I had made a few weeks earlier. The second chapter was about music to be played at funerals. And what did he land on as the most appropriate piece?
Joe Brown’s rendition of I’ll See You In My Dreams.
Secondly, my daughter has brought one of Dad’s ukuleles home. She’s revising for her mock mock GCSEs (It seems in 2019 you need to rehearse the rehearsal). In the downtime though, she’s picking up the instrument that Dad made (and I’m sure it is the right one because it had the name tag on it). It’s another generation but she’s learning to play it using David Bowie and Arctic Monkeys songs. And when I hear her, I can hear Dad next door in the room with her, which is lovely.
Until then – take care and much love.
If you would like to, please make a donation to Mary Stevens Hospice. I can’t say enough good things about what they offered Dad and our family. We were truly blessed to have them be part of his last few weeks with us. They helped give us a little bit of Dad back.
The donation link is here.