Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, I: Playing DJ To The Bereaved

03 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, I: Playing DJ To The Bereaved


My roommate recently told me that his friends were playing a game for which everyone had to come up with their funeral mix - the playlist that they'd hypothetically force their friends and family to hear at the funeral. I'm familiar with the concept of a "pre-need" - an in-character euphemism for the pre-mortem arrangements people make with their undertakers - but besides the offhanded and oft-forgotten request ("I want you to play 'Comfortably Numb;'" "I want you to play 'Solsbury Hill'"), I've never heard of anyone ever providing a complete program of material to guide people through their earliest hours of public grief.

I didn't keep with it while they were putting their playlists together, but most of the decisions I heard seemed crude or bizarre - unreflexive or sardonic or lugubrious, insensitive to the likely moods of the bereaved. I was reminded of a fellow I met in college who intended to dose the punch at his going-away party; I remember him laughing on the porch of our dormitory in the face of my objections and the image of his dilated, weeping parents. All the saxophonists I know have a mischievous streak that frequently spills over into the sinister.

But anyway, it got me thinking. This is a sensitive issue! Do I know enough about the relationship of sound to emotional response that I can trust my choices and guide my loved ones through their upheaval? Is it safe to have a whole album playing, instead of the easier single song? Give them something small and sweet, not a protracted journey through my whim, whims, and whimsy. Let them get out of the cemetery and on with their lives as soon as possible. Spoil as few songs as necessary. Sink into the soil and off the playing field of the living at a fair and considerate speed. One breakup song is enough to process the feeling, to attach it to something manageably small. A whole breakup mix is torture, meted wave after wave, while we steal our breaths in the baited silence between tracks in order to survive the next song's regathered dive into convolution.

It could be handled skillfully, giving people a tapering massage out and sliding into a clean break. But the appropriate isn't always so simple to predict, and I do care about not making things harder on everyone than I have to. I don't play un-befitting music in life (it's one of the few ways I choose not to upset people, so many others being out of my control). So why should I risk leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth?

It's the last moment of a thing that people use as a handle, an anchor, in memory. We leave the theater feeling according to the film's end, not its middle - and that's not simply advice for the departing, to make sure that your final moment is the one you want stamped into the quantum hologram forever and ever, that you're sufficiently present and lucid to survive the dissolution of everything you consider yourself and make some reasonable decisions as you sink back through the densities of embodiment and betwixt the legs of some handsome couple. It's also the motive for making up our dead so as to disguise their wounds, their bloodlessness, their odor.

And it's why I have been thinking about this on and off for weeks, and have yet to settle on more than a handful of songs that would go into the soundtrack to my funeral. The certainties include Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th," a gorgeous and wistful solo piano piece, played with a light but determined touch that evokes in me a precious and miniature sentiment, like looking at a dollhouse of my childhood home. As staunch as the vow of a child, and as pure and naïve. It's one of those rare songs that so successfully leaves a person emptier and quieter, listening for an echo of its solemn but smiling strains in the wind and trees as the end credits roll up over the rest of the day.

Aphex Twin - Avril 14th

Another is Peter Gabriel's "I Grieve," which has a funky, almost heroic bridge that soars momentarily above the incredible tenderness of the rest of the song, reaffirming the persistence of life, before floating respectfully back into a dirge.

Peter Gabriel - I Grieve

It was only one hour ago
It was all so different then
There's nothing yet has really sunk in
Looks like it always did
This flesh and bone
It's just the way that you were tied in
Now theres no-one home

I grieve for you
You leave me
So hard to move on
Still loving what's gone
They say life carries on
Carries on and on and on and on

The news that truly shocks is the empty empty page
While the final rattle rocks its empty empty cage
And I cant handle this

I grieve for you
You leave me
Let it out and move on
Missing what's gone
They say life carries on
They say life carries on and on and on

Life carries on
In the people I meet
In everyone that's out on the street
In all the dogs and cats
In the flies and rats
In the rot and the rust
In the ashes and the dust
Life carries on and on and on and on
Life carries on and on and on

It's just the car that we ride in
A home we reside in
The face that we hide in
The way we are tied in
And life carries on and on and on and on
Life carries on and on and on

Did I dream this belief?
Or did I believe this dream?
Now I can find relief
I grieve...


But maybe I'd switch it out for "Washing of the Water," which is more humble and earnest - and so, strangely, more honest to the yearning that death evokes in me, in spite of it being less specifically and certainly about death and more diffusedly being about passages in general. Less explicit, it's more comforting. Which to me seems more considerate. More of a hymn, taking on a bigger meaning when sung by the whole town.

Peter Gabriel - Washing of the Water

River, river carry me on
Living river carry me on
River, river carry me on
To the place where I come from

So deep, so wide, will you take me on your back for a ride
If I should fall, would you swallow me deep inside

River, show me how to float
I feel like Im sinking down
Thought that I could get along
But here in this water
My feet won't touch the ground
I need something to turn myself around

Going away, away towards the sea
River deep, can you lift up and carry me?
Oh roll on through the heartland
'Til the sun has left the sky
River, river carry me high
'Til the washing of the water make it all alright
Let your waters reach me like she reached me tonight

Letting go, it's so hard
The way it's hurting now
To get this love untied
So tough to stay with thing
Cos if I follow through
I'll face what I denied
I'll get those hooks out of me
And I take out the hooks that I sunk deep in your side
Kill that fear of emptiness, and the loneliness I hide

River, oh river, river running deep
Bring me something that will let me get to sleep
In the washing of the water will you take it all away
Bring me something to take this pain away


Another moment of direct contemplation about it, and maybe I'd add Boards of Canada's "Peacock Tail," a kind of sultry swagger covered in ferns, a wordless exposé of self-justifying groundless bounty, swooning in luxurious patience, swaying back and forth, the radiant masculine yin. Just discordant enough to slow down expectancy, but consistent enough to reward. It flushes me with purples and greens and blues, the most appropriately-named instrumental piece I know - the cool colors not of death and decay, but of a mist-enshrouded and seductively distant beckoning forest promise, the living iridescence of an unthreatening fantasy just beyond reach. A lush riven mirage, confident and tender, noble and sly, good music for lovemaking and therapy. Relaxing and major while being untouchable and time-forgotten enough to mean something at a funeral.

Boards of Canada - Peacock Tail


In fact, the more I think about it, the more I do actually feel like I could provide something heartfelt and meaningful without being cruel about it. Besides, do I really want someone else to pick the music for my funeral? Of course not. Nor, for that matter, do I want someone else picking the music for my wake...so I'll be revisiting this topic with the next entry, when I'll discuss in detail my own happy and sad "I'm Dead" playlists.

(Written for iggli.com.)