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Music for Funerals


After a relative or near friend has died many decisions have to be made, not least about the funeral. You will find that, having chosen a funeral director, he or she will guide you through many of these decisions, and help you come to satisfactory conclusions. One aspect which can need particular help is the choice of music for the actual ceremony, whether it is religious or secular; in a church or a cemetery/crematorium chapel. This page indicates some of the choices that can be made. In many cases they can be mixed and matched, so it is always worth discussing the possibilities.

Generally speaking, the music will consist of:

  1. Music before the ceremony or during the entrance of the coffin and/or family;
  2. Music during the ceremony, perhaps hymns or some special piece to listen to;
  3. Music as the family and coffin leave.

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Funerals Held in a Church

If you choose to have the funeral in a church it is likely that you have some connection with that particular congregation or denomination. Any wishes concerning the music will have to be approved by the minister or priest who has responsibility for that particular church, and/or the person who will actually conduct the ceremony. Unless you make some very unusual choices (such as a song with words which would not be suitable for use in a church) there is not likely to be any problem.

You may choose to have just recorded music, or engage an organist. If you want an organist, this must be discussed with the minister of the church, as most congregations have a resident organist who may expect to play for all funerals. If this is not the case, the minister or your funeral director may offer to find a suitable person, or you can ask one yourself.

It is quite possible to mix both recorded music and hymns/pieces played by the organist in the same service. As most churches do not have many funerals on any one day, there are not the same restrictions of time that a crematorium or cemetery may impose, and it is possible to choose more hymns and music.

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Funerals Held in a Cemetery
or Crematorium Chapel

Unless you have a connection with some particular church or denomination, it is often easier and more convenient to hold the ceremony in one of the chapels provided at a cemetery or crematorium. Here you will have much greater freedom of choice of music than in a church, but find that the restrictions of time imposed limit the total number of pieces.

You may find that you are allotted just 30 - 45 minutes, in which time you must enter the chapel, complete the ceremony, and leave. Generally speaking, this allows for just two pieces/hymns, apart from the music for entering and leaving.

As with churches, some cemeteries and crematoria have a resident organist who will expect to play if you have live music or hymns, whereas at others are unregulated. Your funeral director will advise you on this matter, and find an organist for you if appropriate. Alternatively, you may wish to choose an organist yourself.

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Many people wish to sing hymns as part of a service but are unsure which to choose. Churches usually have their own hymn books, and most cemetery and crematorium chapels have a service book with a choice of well-loved hymns, and these books are entirely satisfactory in most instances. They include such examples as:

  • The Lord's My Shepherd;
  • Abide with Me;
  • The Old Rugged Cross;
  • How Great Thou Art;
  • Make me a Channel of Your Peace.
Should a hymn be requested which is not in these books, most funeral directors will arrange for hymn sheets to be produced.

As a general point, it really is worth considering who will sing the hymns, and what effect this will have on the service. If you yourself are confident singing, or you know that members of the congregation will give a good vocal lead, everything should be fine. However, if this is not the case, most of the singing will be left to the minister. He or she may cope very well, but will have a theological training, not musical - so the effect could be far less than satisfactory.

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Recorded Music

The use of recorded music in funeral services and ceremonies is widespread and convenient. On the positive side, it gives you access to the music of your choice, performed by the singers or musicians you like, in the style you are accustomed to. On the other hand, it may be played on poor equipment, which is operated by a chapel attendant who has so much to do that he/she does not have time to integrate the music into the service in the most discrete manner.

Most crematoria and cemetery chapels (but only some churches) have a selection of well-known recorded pieces which you can choose from. Many subscribe to a commercial system that, given a couple of days notice, allows them to download almost any piece you are likely to want. Alternatively, you may provide your own iPlayer or CDs. Discussion with your funeral director can clarify many points here.

For many people, the main advantage of using recorded music is that it does not incur another expense.

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Engaging an Organist or
Other Musicians/Singers

As there is often some religious element in a funeral service, including hymn singing, it is to some degree traditional to hire an organist to be present. This is particularly important if you do decide to sing hymns as it is very difficult to co-ordinate live voices with a tape or CD. An organist will also play music before and after the service.

As for recorded music, engaging an organist can have both positive and negative consequences: on the positive side, a skilled person can play music in many styles in a convincing manner, and can tailor the music and mood very exactly to what is actually happening at any particular moment. Conversely, a less skilled musician may just manage to play a couple of hymns.

In addition to an organist, or instead of one, it is possible to introduce other instrumental or vocal performers into the ceremony. These could be family members or friends of the deceased, or people specially engaged. The possibilities here are many, and include:

  • A Vocal soloist to lead the singing or perform other requests;
  • A Scottish piper;
  • A Jazz ensemble;
  • A Choir;
  • Almost any instrument/vocal group/ensemble.
For a satisfactory result in this area, unless you know exactly what and who you want, it really is best to consult a professional musician who has the skills and experience to help you make your decisions, and then to put them into effect. Once again, your funeral director can help you in this matter, or you can make contact with someone yourself.

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Non-Religious Ceremonies

Most of the comments above apply also to non-religious ceremonies, just making small adjustments to allow for the absence of any religious content. Many of the "organists" mentioned above are, in fact, professional musicians who work extensively in the secular side of music and are able to perform music of all styles convincingly. Your funeral director can advise you about this, or you can make contact with suitable people yourself.

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Fees & Charges

This is the most difficult area to give any generalised guidelines on, as each church, organist, choir, and singer is free to make their own demands. The following are fairly typical of fees being paid at present for freelance organists and singers. Instrumentalists tend to charge more whereas staff organists at crematoria are paid less:

  • Lowest: £55;
  • Highest: £200;
  • Average: £100.
Some cemetery and crematorium chapels do not have an organ or piano but the organist may be able to supply a suitable electronic keyboard. Some organists make an extra charge for this.

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Copyright, Performance
Rights, and Videos

This section is included for the sake of completeness. Where legal matters are mentioned it cannot be considered to be legal advice - just an indication that the subject matter is worthy of some attention. How you respond to this information is up to you.


All music and words, where the composer or author is alive, or has been dead for less than 70 years, are subject to copyright. This means that, strictly speaking, copies of them cannot be made without permission of the copyright holder. This is particularly applicable to producing hymns sheets as mentioned above or photocopying music. Many churches and other organisations have agreements which allow them to make copies, so the problem is less than it used to be. But, theoretically, before asking for any piece of music or words to be copied you, or someone you nominate, should find out if they are in copyright and take appropriate action. The same also applies to words and music by persons long dead, but published within the last 25 years. There is graphic copyright on the actual published edition and permission should be sought. Whether this is practical or not is another matter. It can take a month or two to gain permission to reproduce copyright material, and most funerals are arranged and over within 7-10 days.

Performance Rights

If music or words are in copyright there probably exists performance rights in connection with them as well, which means that they cannot be publicly performed without permission. Luckily, however, performance rights do not apply in the UK to performances which take place in the course of a religious ceremony. Such a waiver does not apply to the playing of recorded music in public places or churches. But whether it is practical to pursue the legal aspects of this in the short time that a funeral takes to arrange is another matter.

Videos and Recordings

This is particularly applicable if you have engaged an organist or other singers/musicians. They "own" their performance, and no one is allowed to make a recording of it without there permission. This permission is usually obtained by paying a double fee for a video recording or a 50% increase for an audio recording (but these rates vary). Not all organists and performers exercise this right, but if you are intending to have any sort of recording made of the service or ceremony, it is important to check this out beforehand.

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Questions? or
Hire an Organist

If you have any queries about the information on this page, please contact Philip Norman at If you would like to hire an organist, you can do this via this LINK.

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