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.

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.

The Case for Hiring a Professional Funeral Photographer

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

When funeral photographer Duane Knight attended the wake of a childhood friend last December, he was relieved to see a man there taking photographs. But when Knight later learned that the photographer was the father of the deceased, he was devastated. “Oh, I felt so sad that he was taking the photos instead of just being present at his own daughter’s funeral.” Knight believes as a matter of principle that every end-of-life service should be photographed by an empathic but distanced professional with the eye of a photo journalist. If we employ such people to shoot weddings, why not funerals?

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

Yes, immediate family members may be crying and not looking their best, but Knight isn’t interested in capturing images of their faces in that moment. It’s everybody else there in attendance–friends from the office, relatives who’ve traveled long distances–and all the small loving gestures and tender moments going unnoticed that should be documented, he says. “A good funeral photographer has to learn to be invisible. You have to know where to stand. You can’t use a flash. It’s a very delicate thing.” Two to three weeks later, Knight presents the family with an 8X8″ book of photos he has created. “They look at it and thank me through their tears,” Knight says. “I give them a healing record they can keep and browse through forever.”

As a freelancer photographer for “Gospel Today” magazine, Knight photographed the funerals of numerous famous gospel singers including Bishops Walter Hawkins and G.E. Patterson. Upon taking some particularly excellent photos of his own uncle’s funeral in 2008 and turning them into a book, it occurred to Knight that he had a pretty good business concept. Thus, the Brooklyn-based firm Between-the-Dash Photography was born. Knight has package rates; coverage of a simple wake or viewing starts at $750. For more information, write betweenthedashphotography@gmail.com.

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight


Funeral and post-mordem photos
were vitally important to the American grieving process from around 1840 through the Victorian period until the late 1920s. Knight strongly feels he is modernizing a tradition that deserves greater respect. Let me know how you feel about this, and what your experiences with funeral photography have been.
Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

A Fitting Frame for the Humble Prayer Card

Prayer Card Keepsake Booklet

Prayer Card Keepsake Booklet

Of all the gorgeous paper products developed by Forget-Me-Not Memorials, I’ve used the “in memoriam” card holders the most. I give them to my prayer-card-using families as gifts, and they always express their gratitude and delight, asking for more every time (usually to mail to relatives unable to attend services).

In truth, I never understood how vitally important ordinary prayer cards were to some people (Roman Catholics in particular). Prayer cards assume the role of the memorial gift to those in attentance, something small to take home, prop up in the kitchen window sill as a reminder of the person no longer with us. I have started to suggest memorial cards to those who’ve never heard of them since the cards need not be religious, can have a nature scene on them with name, birth/death dates and poem on flip side. The prayer card keepsake booklet shown here ties in a brown silk bow, and keeps the card protected for years. They are inexpensive enough to be given to everyone at the funeral, if desired.

A History of the Holy Card

A history of the holy card is available on Amazon.com


Each card holder measures 4 3/4” x 3“ and is sold for $50 retail in a storage box that holds 25.
Closed card holder on top of its box holding 25

Closed card holder on top of its keepsake box

Beethoven’s Last March

Beethovan's Funeral, March 29, 1827

Beethoven’s Funeral, March 29, 1827


You pretty much have to take a moment to appreciate this: 187 years ago this week, the vibration and flash of March snowstorm lightning woke the deaf, ailing 56-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven who’d been confined to his bed in Vienna for months. Startled from coma, the composer opened his eyes, raised his fist to rail against the sky, then collapsed back, dead.

Three days later, on March 29th, 1827, at least 10,000 grief-striken Viennese fans and citizens, and every local musician Beethoven had inspired, encouraged or berated, gathered for a funeral march with “simple” casket from the yard outside the Schwarzspanierhaus church to the more wooded area of Wahring, where a professional actor delivered a formal funeral oration written by playwright Franz Grillparzer who I wish could come back to teach us the fine art of obit and eulogy writing. Here’s the whole transcript (you have to plow through an opening graph referring to Germany as the Fatherland), or just savor here the best last bit of testimonial in honor of a pure-hearted, tortured man who gave the world so much.

“No living man enters the halls of immortality. The body must die before the gates are opened. He whom you mourn is now among the greatest men of all time, unassailable forever.

“Return to your homes, then, distressed but composed. And whenever, during your lives, the power of [Beethoven’s] works overwhelms you like a coming storm; when your rapture pours out in the midst of a generation yet unborn; then remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died we wept!

Here are two pieces of music that were played at Beethoven’s funeral services, one composed by him, one not: Beethoven’s Equali for four somber trombones, and Luigi Cherubini’s “Requiem in C Minor,” which the discerning LvB admired, and you’ll love too when you listen to it.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Be Thou My Vision”

I sat up until two forty a.m. this St. Patrick’s Day morn, seeking to find the best in Irish funeral music, but twice the song I thought I’d feature proved to be Scottish.

Irish village funeral

Irish village funeral

This was the case with “The Parting Glass” and “Flowers of the Forest,” both amazing songs to absorb in sad times.

I’ll leave you with “Be Thou My Vision,” a favorite in many churches, said to be adapted from a sixth century Irish monastic text and merged with an Irish folk melody called “Slane” much more recently. I like the following three versions of “Be Thou My Vision” for funeral centering and settling, maybe to be played before the service actually starts. Listen to it this way on piano and cello, and this way, as sung by folk singer Andy Hull. Want it to reverberate throughout the sanctuary? Listen to this interpretation through four-part harmonized flutes. Gorgeous. Have a blessed and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and welcome to the many new readers brought to me by the write-up in the NYTimes. Post a comment if you know of an Irish funeral song I’ve missed.

I know, I know. “Danny Boy” of course. Here are my thoughts on how to make “Danny Boy” sound new again.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

A Mentor’s Farewell to Marilyn

Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Monroe’s crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Our study of the eulogy brings us to this short piece of perfection delivered by Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg at actress Marilyn Monroe’s funeral in 1962. We are lucky to be able to hear a full recording here.

Strasberg barely got through his own closing paragraphs, which makes them all the more moving. Here’s what he said:
…I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage. Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sympathy and understanding for a sensitive artist and a woman who brought joy and pleasure to the world.

I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality – I will say au revoire. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
was played as well as a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (scroll to minute seven of this link to hear it). Tchaikovsky’s melodic lament (said to be be a cry of love for his nephew back in 1893) seems an appropriate farewell to a screen goddess, and had been repositioned as a doo-wop tune in 1960 by Little Anthony and the Imperials, placing it in the social atmosphere at the time of Monroe’s death. She was viewable in an open heavy bronze casket, wearing this green Pucci dress, hands grasping pink tea roses from Joe Dimaggio who planned the entire service and didn’t allow any Hollywood stars or hangers-on to attend.

Lutheran Pastor Recalls Productive Life Stolen by Mental Illness

Ned Vizzini

Ned Vizzini


A Funeral Mass and Service of Holy Communion was held in Brooklyn’s St. John-St. Matthew-Emanuel Lutheran Church two days before Christmas for the brilliant, NYC-born writer Ned Vizzini, who tragically leapt to his death last Thursday at age 32. Foremost on the mind of every speaker at the gorgeous tribute attended by perhaps four hundred people was the welfare of Vizzini’s devoted teenaged readers, many of whom, like Vizzini himself, have struggled or been hospitalized with depression and mental illness. Reverend David Parsons was quick to clarify: “Ned didn’t commit suicide. Mental illness took his life from him.”

Vizzini’s sister emphasized that it was important to Ned that his fans never lose hope. Ned was able to turn “demons into muses,” she said, when he wrote the critically-acclaimed books “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and “Be More Chill.” She praised him for his humor and his “emotional honesty.” Vizzini’s brother told charming, funny stories of childhood, described how Vizzini had been loving his Los Angeles screenwriting job, and expressed gratitude for his sibling’s most important legacies–his ability to write about depression with grace and humor, and a toddler son, who didn’t yet know what death was (which is as it should be, he said). Vizzini’s god-mother also spoke, saying “Life is way bigger than any story we can tell about it.” Most moving perhaps was the reading of the following passage (Matthew 6:25-29), which Vizzini once stated was of comfort to him in hard times.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Also read: This passage from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Psalm 77 and Romans 8:31-35, 37-39.
Hymns selected: Shall We Gather at the River? and Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.

Bagpipes, Brahms, and a Single Poem Complete Heaney Funeral

images-3

The funeral for Nobel poet laureate Seamus Heaney was held Tuesday at Dublin’s Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. Wildly affectionate eulogies were delivered (one referring to Heaney’s fondness for stating “Blessed are the pacemakers” after he received the device). Heaney’s friend and recording collaborator Liam O’Flynn then played Port na bPucai on the bagpipes. The only poem read at the service, written by the deceased, was The Given Note. The gathering concluded with Johannes Braham’s famous lullaby on cello as Heaney’s two sons and others shouldered the wood and brass casket. Here’s the whole report from Associated Press; thanks to Koshin Paley Ellison for alerting me to it. Heaney’s last words on his deathbed, written to his wife in Latin were “Noli timere” or “Do not be afraid.”

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!