Good Irish Funeral Music: “Danny Boy” Revisited

th-25It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.

So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. th-23Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).

4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT “DANNY BOY” AFTER THE FUNERAL’S CLOSING.
This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.

Urns of Endearment

dscf3041

Dreams of flight and thoughts of freedom surround nearly every death, so bird imagery on urns for cremated remains makes sense to me. I’ve also been craving more toppers or finials on natural basket urns, and find these feathered friends optimistic and comforting.

Jemima Fisher created her first, simpler fabric urn (without ornament) to hold the cremated remains of her mother who was, like Jemima, a British textile artist and doll maker. Influenced by a fabric bowl her mother had given to her and after a lot of practice, Jemima incorporated her mother’s favorite colors and materials into the whole endeavor, and was pleased with the organic, natural feel. After all that work, the urn was filled with her mom’s cremated remains and buried under a tree.

Would you work a long time to create something beautiful, and then bury it? That’s what I love about this. Some people think that only the simplest wooden cube-shaped urns are suitable for burial, but there’s a strong argument for burying vessels that are not only biodegradeable, but also elegant, rare and precious. “My mother would have loved it, I’m sure,” Jemima says.

Making the first urn “was a cathartic process, but also emotionally draining, and although I wanted to continue creating beautiful biodegradable and ornamental urns for others, it was not the right time to begin,” Jemima writes on her website. So she took a break and has only recently started selling fabric urns to customers.

dscf3076

Placing removable birds on top of the vessels is a newer concept, and Jemima advises families to retain them as keepsakes after the burial (if there is one). The idea for a bird came from the Mouse Man Furniture based in North Yorkshire, England, where every piece of hand-made furniture had a little mouse carved into it. With the birds came new urn shapes, which I think you’ll agree are wonderful.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Jemima’s urns generally sell for 250-300 British pounds, which comes to $460-$550 dollars including postage. Fabulous urn vendor Adrienne Crowther also stocks and sells fabric urns domestically off the brilliant website Shine on Brightly.

Morbid Poet or Canny Pre-Planner?

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts


It’s inspiring to note that America’s most death-preoccupied poet (known for writing “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me;” and “I was always attached to mud”) died in her own sunny bedroom 129 years ago this week, was then placed in a white casket on a pine bier in the parlor, honored with a 130-line obituary in the local newspaper, and was lovingly buried with two heliotropes in her hands at a gorgeous graveside service that involved other May-blooming flowers she had studiously reared (when in better health) in her own garden. Who gets an end-of-life roll-out like that any more? Mostly only those who think a lot about death in advance.th-7

She’d be pleased with us, sitting here, talking about her funeral. “We do not think enough of the Dead as exhilarants,” she wrote. What a soul, what an intellect. She shocks and enlightens us today with her death-inspired insights. For example, she said any death, all death, reliably comes as a “stupendous” surprise (even when that death is long-awaited and anticipated). This is certainly true to my experience. She wrote, “All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the death of the Loved is all moments–now.”

For her funeral May 19th, 1886, Dickinson’s pall bearers walked her casket from the parlor to the cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts, as her grave lay just beyond the fence line of the elegant home where she lived all her life. There, her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson read Emily Bronte’s poem “No Coward Soul is Mine,” a piece which could be interpreted as slightly more religious than Dickinson was in her final years, but you can decide for yourself when you read it, and start thinking about what poems you’d like recited when you too are dead, when “subterfuge is done,” and when the temporary and the eternal “Apart–intrinsic–stand.”

No Coward Soul Is Mine
By Emily Bronte

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life – that in me hast rest,
As I – Undying Life- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every Existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

What Franz Schubert Requested as He Lay Dying

People sometimes ask me how working with the dead has changed my life. And for a long time, I didn’t know how to answer. At first, I said that I was now somewhat less afraid of death, which may be true, but then this response began to seem disingenuous, and it sat less well with me.th

Here is what I know, and experience as a fact: since becoming a funeral director, I’ve been having powerful experiences with music–sometimes in the hearse, sometimes in the chapel, sometimes just at home–in a way I never have before. It’s like my ears and brain are communing with music and processing it in a new way–as though the deceased person stretched out in the back of the car, or just on my mind in that moment, has greatly enlarged my own personal sound system.I’m receiving music like posted mail, and ferreting out its messages. For this, I am grateful. So perhaps I can inspire you to hear music better also, and connect with all it has to say about life’s labored wayfairings.

Here’s a wintery, grief-infused, transporting piece of music one might spend a lifetime internalizing. It’s Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C sharp minor, Opus 131. It is forty minutes long, and it’s the piece of music that caused composer Franz Schubert to say when he heard it, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Schubert, in fact, later requested that this quartet be played as he lingered, ill and dying in his brother’s apartment late in the year of 1827. Classically-trained musicians know this piece well. But you see, I didn’t until I began to be attentive to good grieving music. Some parts are easier to like than others–just like life! What would be your last request? And how does music help you wrap your arms around loss and sadness?

For Couples Who Wish to Spend Eternity Together

Well, we said “‘Til death do us part” until we realized that death doesn’t have to separate two people who long to spend eternity together.

The "Cameo Portrait" urn from the Mathews catalog.

The “Cameo Portrait” urn available at most funeral homes through the Mathews catalog.

Indeed, the funeral industry is able to provide mostly lovely, always fascinating ways to keep love alive. I’ve known elderly lovebirds who’ve retained the cremated remains of the partner who died first, requesting that all ashes get co-mingled when the inevitable eventually occurs. Other families are better pleased by placing Mom’s and Dad’s remains in a large urn sized for couples that has two tidy, separate compartments.

Companion urn for a committed couple, bronze front, zinc body, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

Companion urn for a committed couple, priced well at $990, Memorials.com.

This can be a powerful statement from couples who’ve worked hard to keep their ardor and commitment alive, and want to stay together forever. (Reminder: nearly all cemeteries accept “companion” cremation urns for burial or niche placement just as they have always buried deceased married couples beside each other. Just let the staff know the urn’s dimensions.)

The ultimate valentine: a "Loving Heart" companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, $2,374 on Memorials.com.

A “Loving Heart” companion bronze urn with two compartments for cremated remains, weighing 26 pounds and costing $2,374 on Memorials.com.

If you’re holding the cremated remains of your dearly departed parents on a hall closet shelf, you might consider buying something this Valentine’s Day or on their anniversary that could sweetly house them together. Also, a plaque on a park bench is a splendid way to honor them, or an actual bench for two in the cemetery beside their graves would be an incredibly generous gesture.

Of marriage and coupledom, the poet Robert Frost once wrote, “Two such as you with such a master speed, cannot be parted nor be swept away from one another once you are agreed, that life is only life forevermore, together wing to wing and oar to oar.” And apparently, that summed committed romantic relationship up so well for him that he used that last line under his wife’s name on their shared grave stone.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Beautifully-crafted companion urn by Jaime Miller of WoodMillerUrns.com, only $380.

Celestial Orb Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurns.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

“Celestial Orb” Raku-stye companion urn is large enough to hold the cremated remains of two people. Costs $469 at the marvelous website Artisurn.com, where other handmade pieces for two can be commissioned.

"Seated Couple" bronze companion urn for the depressed mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

“Seated Couple” bronze companion urn apparently (by the looks of things) for the mom who married a stand-up guy, $1418 at Memorials.com

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Simple, practical and solid cedar wood urn holds two. From MemorialsForever.com, $355.

Two-chamber pendant keeps Ma and Pa entwined and hanging on your neck! In gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Two-chamber pendant can keep a tiny bit of your parents’ cremated remains entwined. Nice, in gold vermeil, $130 at IntheLightUrns.com.

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Blue Dolphin urn that holds cremated remains for two, by artist Steven Forbes-deSoule, available for $770 at ShineonBrightly.com

Batesville's Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

Batesville’s Companion Urn Clock keeps any married couple together for all time, $775 at UrnsforCremation.com.

Sacred Music Composer John Tavener Is Dead

The greatest contemporary composer of sacred music Sir John Tavener died in Southern England yesterday, November 12th. He was best known in the US for writing “Song for Athene,” which was played as a recessional at Lady Diana’s 1997 funeral (see video above). Tavener had amicable relationships with each one of the Beatles and recorded for Apple Records. “The Protecting Veil” for cello and orchestra ranks among his most sorrowful but hope-filled pieces, and is music you might recommend to someone in a state of grief. A student of sacred scales, world religious chants, choral and organ music, Tavener spent many years in delicate health, which he said assisted his creative processs. “I live with the thought of death very much in front of me, and this may well have a bearing on the way I think generally.” Here’s another nice quote from today’s NYTimes obit: “I used to fret over manuscripts and think, ‘What am I going to do?’ Now it’s a question of going very quiet, emptying my mind of preconceived ideas and seeing what happens.” Here’s a lovely, short documentary on this most visionary composer and artist.

There Is No Death in Nature

“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo by Kevin Russ

Photo by Kevin Russ (P.S. Happy Earth Day!

On the Inevitability of Separation

On the Inevitability of Separation

“As pilgrims unite and separate at a public inn, so also fathers, mothers, sons, brothers, wives, relations unite and separate in this world. He who thus understands the nature of the body and all human relationships based upon it will derive strength to bear the loss of our dear ones. In Divine plan, one day each union must end with separation.”
–from The Mahabharata, a Hindu text.

My Painted Stairs

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

We all try to leave a mark in this world. And while these photographs of my first floor staircase have nothing to do with funerals or funeral planning, they do say a little about me, so I thought I’d include them here.

I am an enormous admirer of Vanessa Bell’s country house, Charleston. She was the writer Virginia Woolf’s sister, of course, and she painted the walls and doorways of her home with her lifelong friend Duncan Grant. Gosh, I always thought, I’d like to be that uninhibited, that free. Then, as I approached the age of fifty, I thought, to hell with this, it’s now or never. I’m just going to start! So I started. And I painted these stairs that lead upstairs from my narrow 1911 home’s first floor.

Here’s a larger view. I stenciled the checkerboard part, and painted the rest freehand with Benjamin Moore sample jars. Are you leaving a mark on your world? Share it with me.
P1010032