The science of funeral music

PhD candidate Janieke Bruin has picked an unusual topic for her doctoral research: funeral music. To collect data, she attends funeral ceremonies. “Doing a PhD in funeral music doesn’t make for easy small talk at parties, but it’s extremely interesting.”

Pop songs by girl group K3, electronic beats, the soundtrack of crime series NCIS. Janieke Bruin has heard it all come from the speakers of crematoria in the Netherlands. One and a half years into her PhD, she has attended 44 funeral ceremonies during which a total of 236 music pieces were played.

Univers stopped by Bruin’s office on campus to talk about the music we choose at funerals, and what that tells us about the way we deal with death and loss in our society. As it turns out, our funeral playlists can reveal more than just questionable taste.

Not too many people are into funeral music. How did you become interested in it?

“As a student I already had an interest in rites of passages, which drew me to the Master’s program in Religion and Ritual here at Tilburg University. During the Master’s program I discovered that I really enjoyed doing research. Because I’m a musician myself, I was particularly interested in the role of music in rites of passage. Inspired by the work of Martin Hoondert, who also worked on music and rituals, this eventually grew into a PhD project. It doesn’t make for easy small talk at parties, but it’s really fascinating.”

What makes it so fascinating?

“Pretty much anything is possible, at least in the Dutch context, and you can come across everything from more traditional ceremonies to disco-style funerals with drawn curtains, bombastic club music, and colorful lights that flash to the beat of the music. Music is a fundamental part of funeral rituals. It’s universal, but at the same time it’s extremely diverse.”

Death is inevitable, but a basic funeral is not?

“It reflects the way we deal with death nowadays. We want to celebrate the life of the deceased, rather than silently mourn that person’s death. Some funerals really are more like a party. I once witnessed a funeral where people stood around the coffin with a glass of wine, sung a festive song and raised their glasses to the life of the deceased. It’s a very contemporary attitude towards death and loss, sometimes called ‘the spectacular death’.”

Spectacular or not, funerals are emotionally charged events. Doing a PhD seems challenging enough without having to sit in on funeral ceremonies. Do you ever struggle with that?

“You know, I’m a big softie when I attend the funeral of someone I’ve known. I’ll cry my eyes out. But when I’m present at a ceremony in the context of my research, it’s different. Of course it affects me when I see someone break in the middle of a speech, but I can keep a healthy distance. Out of all the ceremonies I’ve attended, there was one funeral that was really intense. The deceased was a very young girl. I remember being pretty shaken when I drove home from the ceremony.”

Why do you choose to be physically present at funerals? Why not simply ask cremation centers for a list of the songs they play?

“I also use lists, actually, which show the rankings of most frequently played songs in crematoria. Those lists are definitely interesting, but I’m not only interested in which songs are played during funerals. I’m also interested in how those songs function within the funeral ceremony, how they are folded into the ritual: at which exact moments is a song played, what happens before and after, are any references made to the lyrics of the song? Playlists are interesting, but the practices around funeral music even more fascinating.”

Are there any funeral ‘hits’ that you often come across?

“Songs like Time to say goodbye by Andrea Bocelli and the Ave Maria in various versions are very common, and Dutch songs such as Afscheid nemen bestaat niet by Marco Borsato and Mag ik dan bij jou? by Claudia de Breij are also very popular. Those are probably the biggest funeral hits in the Netherlands, but overall it’s very diverse. Funeral music varies from one region to the next— in the north of the country you hear many songs of Ede Staal, while around Tilburg songs of Frans Bauer and Grad Damen are popular. But even within the same region, music varies from one crematorium to another and from one funeral to another. Funerals have become personalized. Standard funeral songs are replaced by more personal choices, by songs that evoke memories of the deceased.”

Is that why unconventional funeral songs are in vogue, because we want the funeral to be as unique as the person who died?

“It’s the slogan of pretty much every undertaker nowadays—a ‘personal’ funeral. People want a funeral to capture the life and personality of the deceased. Music is an essential part of that personal approach. Of course you can question how ‘personal’ a funeral is, but people often experience that the funeral ‘really was the way grandpa would have wanted it’.”

Aside from unusual songs, are there any other funeral practices trending right now?

“Eco-friendly and sustainable funerals are probably the hottest trend in the funeral industry right now. Someone actually came up to me at a funeral convention recently, asking me whether I had ever considered returning as a tree after I die. You can have your ashes merged with seeds, out of which a tree will grow.”

Have traditional funerals disappeared completely, or do some people still leave this world the old-fashioned way?

“A lot has changed, especially in the sense that funerals have become individualized. But at the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate those changes. In the end, most contemporary Dutch funerals still follow the traditional song-speech-song-speech-song format. Only now with a personal touch.”


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