Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part II: Putting Death In A Box

08 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part II: Putting Death In A Box

Adowa funeral celebration

Since I started to write about DJing one's own going away party, the bark has peeled back from the tree to reveal a world much more fascinated with this subject than I knew. My first clue came casually: "Oh, like in High Fidelity!" I saw High Fidelity, andloved it - but that was a few years ago, long enough to totally forget that Rob Gordon, Nick Hornsby's playlist-obsessed protagonist, had already popularized the funeral mixtape game. Then, I discovered that a mysterious British organization, the Bereavement Register, polled U.K. citizens about this very question, as well - to discover that 79 percent of them were already thinking about it. Apparently James Blunt is well-regarded as a deliverer of dirges; he topped the pre-funeral charts (which is funny, because Brits also voted him one of the most annoying things about their country - insert bagpipe analogy here):

01. "Goodbye My Lover" - James Blunt
02. "Angels" - Robbie Williams
03. "I've Had the Time of My Life" - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
04. "Wind Beneath My Wings" - Bette Midler
05. "Pie Jesu" - Requiem
06. "Candle in the Wind" - Elton John
07. "With or Without You" - U2
08. "Tears in Heaven" - Eric Clapton
09. "Every Breath You Take" - The Police
10. "Unchained Melody" - Righteous Brothers

Wow. "Unchained Melody" is only number ten? What an outrage. Actually, I'm pretty aghast at most of these. (Speaking of aghast: Interestingly but trivially, both Hornsby and this poll came from the U.K., a decidedly morbid patch of land.)

People have been playing music for as long as they've been burying their dead, and so I'm sure that people - for as long as we have understood our mortality and could be called people - have been requesting certain songs be played at their graveside. While I can't find any recorded history of the funeral mix, I think it's safe to assume that we started requesting recorded music at our funerals as soon as it was available. Compared to the modesty of flowers and dirt that they used to be, most modern funerals are technological spectacles. We take every opportunity to upgrade even our most ancient ceremonies. We are accomplices to a universal current of crystallizing self-reflexion, embracing every novelty, jumping on every chance to compensate for Death by replicating and disseminating our favorite ideas.

We make a religion of anything that will outlive us. Since there are no carry-ons or checked luggage allowed on that particular flight (the weight limit is zero), we have to cash in at the gates of eternity by ceding eternal life to the living. We hand down the right to endure to someone or something else - our children and our stories, an ideal, or a joke, or a song. We finally find immortality by investing our living and dying breaths in the worship of those things we consider to be beautiful, or good, or true.

To put it another way, we know we end, and so we are obsessed with legacy. And whenever something increases our capacity to leave our legacy - when we invent writing, or the printing press, or genetic engineering, or the internet - we feed it as much as it can eat. Even ourselves.

And so we began investing in fossils, identifying with particular recordings, and not the living music to which they referred - the abstract and elusive, nimble and ephemeral music that characterized being human before the Age of Recording, never the same twice, mischievous and seductive. In a way, we have paved the way for Death by even agreeing to recorded music, by unemploying the spontaneous expression of grief we find only in the music of the bereaved. Postmodern composer John Cage:

"A finished work is exactly that, requires resurrection."

If playing recorded music at a funeral does in fact squelch some balance of living response, then we end up not just dead but having managed to pull the funeral down with us, as well. What, then, is the point of coming up with a funeral mix? I think so many people delight at the prospect because making playlists is the fashionable modern way for us to to contain the tremendous, terrifying mystery of the unknown.

A UCLA study led by Matthew Lieberman recently concluded that identifying emotions allows people a degree of immunity from them. By even recognizing and naming our anger, sadness, or fear, we move ourselves to a safe and impassive distance. (Of course, the same is true for pleasurable emotions, as should be obvious to anyone who has ever watched a joke die by dissection.) Not only did they finally find a physiological basis for the benefits of mindfulness meditation - evidence that learning to watch the mind does actually lift people over the thunder and lightning of the limbic system - but they also unwittingly explained why it's so useful for us to write or sing or paint out our troubling experiences.

The emerging model is one of subject-object relations, where describing grief allows us to loosen our identification with it. By speaking about "the" grief, or even "my" grief, we move our pain into the third person - where we have it, rather than it having us. By codifying our lives and deaths, we remove ourselves from them, and no longer suffer total immersion in an unconquerable wash of feeling.

We benefit from funeral playlists because they pin down the most salient metaphors so we can study them, because "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Like good naturalists, we capture our experiences and embalm them behind a glass case, the boundless fury of Nature Red In Tooth And Claw miniaturized and mediated by a guided audio-tour. Our playlists reflect the edges of a giant, hidden shape. They allow us to tame Death by conceiving of it, by relating to it in a way our minds can manage (although, looking through the cage bars into this tiger exhibit, we forget that the tiger is actually still loose in the zoo).

It is precisely because having a funeral playlist somehow kills the living expression of grief - because recorded music offers, in its death, the illusion of persistence and of fathomability - that it is so popular. And the luxury of capturing our whole holographic experience in a single posthumous album is that we can close the books on a truth more grand and intricate than any of us can bear.

But that may also be why, as consoling as they may be, funeral mixes offer no ultimate solace - because keeping Death at arm's length doesn't allow the intimacy of direct experience. Sooner or later, each of us will have to move into Death, instead of away from it, and practicing one won't ready us for the other.

On the other hand, all technology seems capable of supporting both our desperate illusions of security and enabling our unflinching self-transcendence. Could a funeral playlist prepare people for Death, rather than merely offering us distractions and false promises? I certainly think so. In the next installment, I'll discuss the funeral playlist as not just a coping mechanism, but a tool for skillful compassion, and I'll continue to explore the songs on the soundtrack to my funeral.

In the meantime, here's an hors d'ouevre, Stuart Davis' spectacularly irreverent and lucid song, "Practice Dying." If any song can capture the subtlest essence of why to make a funeral playlist, this is it:


Get high on ether when there's no one in the house
Pretend it's the big one at the moment you pass out
That's just rehearsal, but it's comforting somehow
To practice dying now

Hang out in funeral homes and make an honest bid
Lay in your casket, let them close the lid
Abra cadaver, roll your eyes back in your head
Practice being dead

Don't feel stupid; we're all scared
No one wants to go to hell
There's still time to get prepared
Start out now and finish well

Try painting tunnels on the ceiling in your room
Imagine your birth backwards with a bigger, better womb
Take little trips out of your body now and then
And if the rapture comes, maybe you'll ascend
You know the saying, "Once you learn to ride a bike..."
Well, that's what dying's like

Get high on ether when there's no one in the house
Pretend it's the big one at the moment you pass out
It's just rehearsal, 'cause that's all that life allows
So practice dying
Cuz you're almost dead
Practice dying now


(Written for iggli.com.)