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.

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

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?

Forever Uplifted, Solid and Safe

Urn by Chris Parow

Buckley’s Urn by Chris Parow


You can see that the urn above is 1.) different and 2.) flat-out gorgeous. It was made for a beloved pet dog, but to my mind, it could work for almost anybody. Made of walnut and gathered drift wood by artist/woodworker Christopher Parow, it now houses the cremated remains of Buckley, a close friend’s Boxer-mix who quite sadly had a fatal heart attack this past Thanksgiving at the age of three. It was only last summer that Buckley had enthusiastically helped to collect this driftwood on a beach in Maine as Parow and Buckley’s owner Emerson (Em) walked alongside him.
Buckley's urn, as seen from the top

Buckley’s urn, as seen from above


Parow writes, “I spent most of my time trying to make the drift wood actually hug and embrace Buckley’s new home…After several hours of working everything together just right, it was complete. It now represented some of the most precious memories of Em and Buckley’s time together.

“Death is never easy,” Parow goes on to say, “With this piece, I aimed to create a truly positive resting place, a comfy nest, where [Buckley] can have little barky doggy dreams of scouring the beach for drift wood. RIP Buckley.”

Buckley on the beach

Buckley on the beach

You can find more of Parow’s amazing woodwork and wood sculptures on his website Trees and Nails.

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.