Best funeral hymns: 6 choices for expressing grief and hope
We name the finest combinations of words and tunes with which to say goodbye to a loved one
For all the overall sadness and solemnity of the situation, singing hymns at funerals can provide moments of calm, comfort, togetherness and, even, joy. Here, we recommend six of the very finest hymns for funerals
Best funeral hynmns
Abide With Me
By some stretch the most popular hymn sung at funerals, Abide With Me is the work of the Anglican minister Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), usually sung to ‘Eventide’, the well known tune by WH Monk (1823-89). And, like many of the best hymns, its words work on several levels. Though the first line makes a biblical reference to the disciples’ request to Jesus to remain with them after sunset and the ‘change and decay’ in Verse 2 suggests the turning of the seasons, the later line ‘Where is death’s sting’ and the closing ‘In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me’ make it clear what the hymn is really about. It is believed – though not certain – that Lyte wrote his hymn in anticipation of his own impending end and it was sung for the first time at his funeral. Its use as a pre-match hymn at FA Cup Finals dates back to 1927.
The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended
Another hymn in which the end of the day can serve as a metaphor for the end of life is, arguably, the most beautifully moving funeral hymn of all - The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended. As with so many of our favourite hymns, the words date from the 19th century, in this instance written by the Reverend John Ellerton in 1870. They are usually sung to the tune ‘St Clement’, written by the Reverend Clement Scholefield, one time chaplain of Eton College, among other posts. The tune’s name was, incidentally, not a case of its composer sanctifying himself – it was, in fact, given to it by editor Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) in his 1874 hymnal Church Hymns with Tunes. The overall message, here, is one of comfort – throughout the night and the day that follows, we are being benignly watched over.
We named The Day Thou Gravest, Lord, is Ended, one of the best hymns of all time
The Lord is my Shepherd
Comfort and courage in dark times is also very much at the heart of The Lord’s my shepherd, whose words are taken from Psalm 23 in the Old Testament – ‘Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale, Yet will I fear no ill,’ we sing in Verse 3. For many years, the go-to choice of tune was the simple but very affecting ‘Crimond’ by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-87), the daughter of a minister in Aberdeenshire – the tune’s name comes from a village in which he served. However, in November 1994, millions of us started to watch a new comedy called The Vicar of Dibley on BBC TV, complete with theme music by Howard Goodall. A new favourite setting of The Lord is my shepherd had entered the mix.
Lead Kindly Light
‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom’… the opening line of this much-loved hymn by Cardinal Newman (1801-90) spells its message clear. These words of hope may well reflect Newman’s own circumstances at the time of their composition – having found himself ill, homesick and stranded in Sicily, he wrote them on his journey home when, at last, he found a boat to take him back to Britain. Many leading composers have set his text, including Sullivan, Stainer and William Harris, but the most famous tunes that they are sung to are ‘Lux Benigna’ by the Reverend John Bacchus Dykes (1823-76) and ‘Sandon’ by Charles H Purday (1799-1865).
Make Me A Channel of Your Peace
A favourite of Diana, Princess of Wales, at whose funeral it was sung in September 1997, Make Me A Channel of Your Peace has since become enormously popular around the world. In comparison to the other choices on this list, which come from the golden age of hymn-writing that was the 19th century, this is a much more recent affair. It is in fact the handiwork of Sebastian Temple (1928-97), a BBC correspondent who, when not reporting on South Africa, devoted much of his time to writing church music. For the text of his 1967 hymn, Temple chose the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi – which, in very different circumstances, also provided the inspiration for Margaret Thatcher’s famous speech following victory in the 1979 UK General Election.
Thine Be The Glory
Not all funeral hymns have to be downbeat or even gentle affairs. Those with a positive outlook may want to go for this 1884 spirit-lifter by Swiss minister Edmond Louis Budry’s, set to a suitably rousing tune from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Often a popular Easter hymn, the words of Thine Be The Glory nonetheless can be applied to a funeral context – ‘Let the church with gladness Hymns of triumph sing; For her Lord now liveth Death hath lost its sting.’
You can find the lyrics to some of your favourite hymns here
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.