(Image from shedreamsindigital.net)
There are at least three levels of motivation for making a funeral mix. As I have mentioned, personal comfort - planning-as-insulation from an intensely impartial and unforgiving void - is one. But beyond the narrow constraints of such half-conscious, fear-motivated scrambling - the secular and self-serving penitences of our iPod culture - there are nobler reasons to leave a funeral playlist (or any artifact) that communicates something you are no longer able to say.
A moment of explanation. Back in 2005, I heard Ken Wilber speak in Denver, and he was discussing how we can't determine a person's motivation from their actions alone. This is because as we mature psychologically, our sense of self becomes more complex and extends to more and more of the world we experience; what used to be "it" becomes "me." We start in a swirl of undifferentiated experience and learn through laborious error that there is a difference between "self" and "other." Then we learn that we have a body, but are not exclusively that body; then we learn that we have thoughts, but are not exclusively our thoughts. All of these things are there the whole time, but as our inner world becomes richer, we learn to recognize them as distinct objects of our experience - and, simultaneously, learn that these things that are parts of us are not us, in the sense that "I" remain "I" without them. As a child grows, what she considers "me" (and therefore "mine") grows in an expanding concentric ring, and this passage - from "egocentric" to "ethnocentric" to "worldcentric," or concern for self, then family, then all people - offers an entire spectrum of reasons for her to do any particular thing.
Ken offered, as a mundane example, the use of makeup. Someone can wear lipstick because it makes her feel pretty (egocentric); or because it will please another person or other people, or it's "the right thing to do" (ethnocentric); or because by beautifying herself, she's making the whole world more beautiful and thus acting in service of a universal ideal (worldcentric). And you'll never know by watching someone make kissy faces in the mirror whether she's doing it for one of these reasons, and not another.
(If any of this is unclear, here's more about egocentrism, ethnocentrism, andworldcentrism.)
With that in mind:
If I'm going to make a list of songs to be played at my funeral, I want to do it for the noblest reasons I know. I'm not going to do it merely to sandbag my own fear of mortality, or to relish forcing my will on people in a moment of unique vulnerability. I want to make an offering of music that has helped me deal with mortality and bereavement, in the hope that I can bring some modicum of peace to a world defined by suffering. I want to share the sole remaining thing I will be able to give people after I die: perspective.
After all, losing someone is scary. Even when we can't completely fathom the death of our own bodies, we feel death directly in a small way when the people with whom we identify pass on. "I feel like I lost a piece of myself," we say, and the truth is that we did - even if our limited Western notion of compartmental identity doesn't acknowledge it as such.
The music playing at my funeral, then, is also the music playing at their funeral. And what would you want to hear when you're dying? A dispatch from the other side, alleviating the unbearable mystery? Loving acknowledgment and the permission to feel what you're feeling? A reminder of how this passage is what unifies you with everyone else? Music can offer all of these things in one form or another.
And peace is contagious - so if I have the means to offer it to even a few people, it can ripple outward through their thoughts and deeds and affect everyone else, people I never had the chance to meet. In fact, why wait until I'm dead? Why conserve the gift for a handful of friends and family?
From here on out, I'll use this column to examine the songs I would offer to anyone who survives me. This is the music that accomplishes (in my opinion) the highest potential of music: to connect us so deeply to the world that we are dead before we are dead, that we are unafraid of death (and thus, unafraid of life). Affirmative even in their difficult truths, these songs have given me a solace I haven't found anywhere else. Hopefully, they'll make you feel a little bit more capable of handling the grim reality of my death, and yours.
(Written for iggli.com)