Why aren't people singing hymns at funerals any more – and does it matter?

Hymns at funerals are dying out, according to research by SunLife quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Instead relatives are more likely to choose popular music they believe says something about the life of the deceased, and that leaves people in more of a feelgood mood.


SunLife's research found that 45 per cent of ceremonies don't include a hymn. The Telegraph quotes the president of the National Association of Funeral Directors, who says that 'Funerals today are rapidly becoming as much a celebration of life as a farewell and are becoming increasingly personalised.'

It's hard to argue with this, and anyone ministering during the last 10 or 20 years will have noticed the trend. There is nothing sacred about Abide with me and The Lord's my shepherd, the two standards even the most modestly-talented crematorium organist could play blindfold while standing on his head, supposing such a posture to be appropriate. They can be chosen by believers because they express beautiful scriptural truths, but they are also the default hymns for people who don't know what else to choose, and they can be dirge-like.

When a believer dies, the funeral can be wonderful. They know where they're going; they may have had time to prepare; it can, alongside the sadness, be a joyful celebration because the service is held in the context of an understanding that life and death are in God's hands. When Christians die, we are not dead; we are even more alive.

When someone dies who isn't part of a Christian community – or whose relatives aren't – it's much more difficult. Some ministers might take the line that they'll only bury or cremate members of their own congregation. Most aren't so hard-line, and see funerals as part of their ministry. But it can be hard to navigate the choices made by relatives. Imagine by John Lennon is lovely, but its call to imagine 'no religion too' doesn't sit easily with many of us. And what about Always look on the bright side of life, from Monty Python's Life of Brian?, another favourite?

The music at a predominantly secular funeral is often going to be a pressure point. Perhaps it will just grate. More often, popular music – a song chosen just because it's a favourite, for instance, perhaps not even known by many of those there – just isn't adequate to the occasion. Sometimes grief is intense, and the bereaved don't know how to handle it. Music that fails to rise to the occasion doesn't help, it just makes things worse. It's then that ministers might just have to say no, perhaps risking their reputations at the hands of local newspapers desperate for good stories. But the days when whole communities could be brought together by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that everyone knew, even if they didn't always believe them, have gone.

So words become even more important. Funerals are a ministry, but they're also a witness. Without the shared culture of spiritual song, the stories of Scripture, the words of prayers, the content of tributes are the gateway through which God enters the space. As long as ministers are required for funerals – and fewer of them are, the research shows – they will need to speak words of grace and hope, even when the congregation isn't feeling it. We are all, whether we acknowledge it or not, infinitely and eternally precious in God's sight: the funeral is a chance to remind us of that.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods