I always wonder what they'll choose.
I had an inkling yesterday, given that the funeral was family, and Welsh, and that those burying their mother and grandmother are fervent music lovers. I was surprised to learn yesterday that my Great Aunt Coral had not in fact been born in Wales, but in London, in 1928, her parents moving to the homeland weeks after her birth. Coral was deeply Welsh, married a Jones - my Great Uncle Ivor, like my grandfather Emlyn a professional footballer - and adored Welsh music with all her heart.
Bryn Terfel came as no surprise, then (he was born a Jones, too). His rich bass baritone filled the Yardley crematorium chapel with 'Calon Lan' - the rousing Welsh hymn known to fans of Rugby Union, and of this season's Britain's Got Talent, being one of the songs sung by the great choir from the valleys, Only Boys Aloud. Then 'Abide With Me', which I think I'd expected. As that massive coal-fuelled voice echoed as if straight out of the pits with death and hope and longing, I found myself thinking how Coral would have loved to have him there, belting it live.
We sang Psalm 23, creaking voices straining for the high notes; we left the chapel to Johnny Mathis singing 'What'll I Do'. That old Irving Berlin standard always evokes memories of 'The Great Gatsby' for me. It also rings with so many indelible, perfect voices - Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Elkie Brooks, Judy Garland, Cleo Laine, Sarah Vaughan, Perry Como, Crystal Gayle, Harry Nilsson - they could have chosen any one of them. If it is the Mathis recording which haunts, it must have been what Coral would have wanted. It was wonderful.
This is what it's all about, isn't it? Music to remember them by. The choices people make speak volumes, or are supposed to. The millions who get played out to 'My Way', usually by Sinatra and, get this, the most popular funeral-song choice, wish to leave us with the memory that life was always on their terms, that they called the shots, that they have few if any regrets. Life mostly isn't like this, don't we know. We look around the chapel, thinking about where we are in our own lives, all the nightmares going on and whether we will get back in time to pick up the kids and who'll let the dog out, and we scrap in our bags and pockets for bits of snotty tissue and wonder which of us will go next. The song is so loaded with poignancy, we can hardly bear to sit still and actually listen to it. Why do so many choose it, then? Because a funeral is the one time when we must hear. Because, whatever they choose, they are playing our song.
It got me thinking about other songs I have heard at funerals down the years. Some of them feature on the Top Ten lists of the most popular - Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings', Celine's 'My Heart Will Go On' and even Gerry's 'You'll Never Walk Alone', for example. Then there are those who seek solace in the elegance and dignity of soaring classical works: Elgar's Nimrod, Puccini's 'Nessum Dorma' and 'Pie Jesu' from Faure's Requiem being favourites. As for hymns, I wish I had a quid for the number of times I've had to warble 'The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended', 'Morning Has Broken' and 'the Old Rugged Cross'. There are hundreds of hymns in the Oxford University Press 'Songs Of Praise' (my old school hymn book); countless thousands of popular songs and classical pieces we could have. The fact that we resort to the familiar, the predictable, the all-too-expected in times of grief says much. We won't hear our loved-one's voice again. We can listen to their music, though.
There won't be any 'My Way' for me... even though I've lived a life that's been far too full, travelled a lot of scabby highways and have bitten off so much more than I could chew. But it's not the song I'd have my loved ones remember me by. They know what is. My lifelong friend Steve Harley has promised to sing it at my funeral, if I turn out to be the one of us who gets there first. Every time I see him, he asks me if I've got a date.