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'When you sing for a grieving family, you can see the impact live music can have'

We asked the London Funeral Singers to tell us about their work

How did you start?

We met while performing in a show together in 2014. We liked singing together, and initially we began singing at funerals as a duo. However, we realised that to give the best service to our clients we needed to expand the range of voices we could offer. So we started auditioning for singers too add to our book and were overwhelmed at the quality of the singers who wanted to join us. We now have over 80 professional singers and musicians to call on, from classical soloists to organists to pop singers.

What are you most requested songs? Why do you think people choose these?

Our top request is Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s always been a popular choice for funerals, but we think people choose it because there’s something really calm and comforting about it as a piece. It’s a great choice for entry music, especially if it’s an unaccompanied voice, because it’s so focused and establishes just the right atmosphere. Hymns are still very popular, especially Abide With Me, The Lord Is My Shepherd, The Old Rugged Cross and Jerusalem, as well as Amazing Grace. But we’re finding that people are becoming bolder with their choices – 60s pop songs are becoming more frequent, as are 80s pop and musical theatre ballads like Bette Midler’s The Rose and I Know Him So Well from the musical Chess.

What is it like bringing this very personal contribution to the funeral of a family’s loved one, who you generally don’t know?

It’s a real privilege. Although we always remember that we’re there in a professional capacity it’s wonderful to hear people’s stories told by their loved ones, and we usually come out of the services wishing we could have met them. Also, when you sing for a grieving family you can often see just how much of an impact live music can have – the mood in the room changes palpably and it feels like something has been opened or released. It’s very fulfilling for a singer.

What has prompted the move towards more personalised funerals, in your view?

Perhaps it’s the relaxing of attitudes towards what the ‘right’ funeral should be. People are less afraid to do things a little differently and not follow the rules to the letter. In many cases we’ve found that priests and other religious leaders are very open to personalising the funeral service, so there’s support coming from within religious institutions themselves. Plus of course the rise of non-religious services, which are bespoke from beginning to end.

Where can you see this trend going in the future?

We think that live funeral music will become the norm in the UK, like it is in Wales, Ireland, and some Scandinavian countries. Eventually, booking singers and musicians will be as integral to the process as ordering the flowers. It’s becoming rarer for people to learn hymns at school, so increasingly congregations will need confident voices to help them feel brave enough to sing along, and as more and more people start to witness the difference live music can make to a funeral the more they will want it to feature in services for their loved ones too.

Any other interesting anecdotes from your experiences?

There was one occasion where the dreaded mobile phone went off. Everyone’s head swivelled around to the singers, as the sound was coming from the front, but only we knew that it actually belonged to the priest, who carried on as if nothing had happened!

We are privileged to hear some very funny and moving eulogies. At the funeral of a prominent member of the hairdressing world recently, a member of the family told a hilarious anecdote about a cantankerous pet parrot which had the whole congregation in stitches. The singers had to fight to regain their composure!

One of our favourite services in the last year was for a lady who had been brought up Jewish, then found Buddhism later in life, and who had a love of musical theatre. The funeral service was an amazing mix of these influences, with rituals from both Judaism and Buddhism, and our singers performing a song from the musical Wicked. It was great to see so much of the lady’s personality reflected in this somewhat unconventional but very thoughtful and personal service.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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