Music has become an important part of modern funeral services and those organising a memorial service will often spend a great deal of time deciding what songs to play. While many go with a contemporary pop song, others might have a particular hymn that seems appropriate. However, one of the most popular options is a piece of classical music. Stirring and emotive, these ten suggestions represent some of the most popular compositions of classical music for funerals.
Be sure to discuss music with your chosen funeral director.
The Lark Ascending – Vaughan Williams
Inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, The Lark Ascending is a beautifully nostalgic piece of music that’s often used to say goodbye to dearly missed friends and family. Supposedly composed as Williams watched soldiers board the boats that would ferry them across to France at the outbreak of the First World War, the song is most notable for its powerful violin solo and its reputation as one of the British public’s favourite pieces of classical music.
Largo (Xerxes) – George Frideric Handel
Though not greeted with critical acclaim at the time of its creation, Handel’s Largo is now an increasingly popular composition that seems to have found its place amongst the greats of the genre. Part of a larger operatic series based on the story of the Persian emperor Xerxes I, the Largo aria has become a much admired piece of music centred around the theme of love and is regularly played at memorial services.
Song for Athene – John Tavener
Performed at the funeral of Princess Diana, this beautiful choral arrangement has found its way into the public consciousness and is now regularly sung or played at funerals around the country. Written following the death of a young Greek friend in a cycling accident, Tavener incorporated elements of the Greek Orthodox tradition into the composition to create a moving memorial to life lost.
Adagietto (Symphony No. 5) – Gustav Mahler
Adagietto is the fourth movement from Mahler’s most famous work, Symphony No. 5. Reportedly inspired by the composer’s love for his wife Alma, it was written after Mahler was confronted with his own mortality when he suffered from a large haemorrhage and was sent to the countryside to recuperate. This comes across in the music, and makes it especially suitable as a piece of classical music for funerals.
Ave maria – Franz Schubert
One of Schubert’s most renowned pieces, Ave Maria draws from Arthurian legend, a poem by Sir Walter Scott and the picturesque Austrian landscape. Though the title may suggest it’s a devotional piece of music, it actually concerns a young girl named Ellen, who is the protagonist in Scott’s poem. Its calm and melancholic composition make it a powerful choice for any funeral service. Tenor Luigi Vena performed the piece at the funeral of American President John F Kennedy, following his assassination.
Pavane – Gabriel Fauré
For a long time, this gentle composition has been associated with feminine grace and beauty, and consequently, it is often employed as a fitting tribute to those important women in our lives. Supposedly intended as a musical tribute to his father, who had passed away three years before work on the piece began, it is marked by some of the greatest melodies Fauré ever committed to paper, and is a popular choice of classical music for funerals.
Fur Elise – Ludwig van Beethoven
Instantly recognisable, this incredible piano composition is still used in funeral services across the country, despite it now being over 200 years old. Though the identity of the titular Elise remains a mystery, there is little doubt that this is a powerful piece of music that is capable of generating great emotion.
Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor – Sergei Rachmaninoff
While its length would usually require specific segments of the song to be chosen for a funeral service, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is an extremely melancholic composition that’s famous for bringing tears to a listener’s eyes. If you want to remember a loved one with a powerful, emotive piece of classical music, this would be a good choice for any memorial service.
Adagio Lamentoso (Symphony No. 6) – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The final part of Tchaikovsky’s last completed symphony, this composition was first performed just nine days before the death of the composer and is now strongly associated with ideas of death and dying. Whether such interpretations of the work hold any credence is a matter of debate, but this hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most popular pieces of classical music for funerals.
Cantata No. 208, Sheep May Safely Graze – Johann Sebastian Bach
This peaceful composition gives those gathered at a funeral a moment to collect their thoughts and remember the deceased. Though actually a secular composition, its references to sheep and shepherds also have religious connotations, making it an apt choice for both religious and non-religious services.
While these ten pieces of music are among the best known examples of classical music for funerals, remember that there are no rules. Generally, people expect emotive and reflective pieces of music, though it’s absolutely acceptable for you to choose something that the deceased loved.