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Best classical music and hymn choices for funerals

Selecting the right music and hymns for the funeral of a loved one is never going to be an easy task. Oliver Condy chooses music that can provide moments of beauty amidst the sadness

Best funeral music and funeral hymns

There is a lot to think about when organising a funeral – readings, eulogy, mourners – and music may not be a priority. It does, however, form an important part of a church service. Here are suggestions of music that can provide moments of beauty amidst the sadness.

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Best organ music for funerals

Should the funeral be taking place in a church, the chances are there will be an organ. If you can, talk to the organist about the options. Many will suggest improvising as the coffin is brought in, but consider the following:

Elgar: Nimrod from the Enigma Variations

There are a few arrangements for organ, including a superb one by WH Harris, the composer of the choral masterpiece Faire is the Heaven. It’s not an easy play, but worth spending time on, particularly in finessing the registration changes.

Recommended recording:

Elgar: Enigma Variations/Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder

Bach: Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639

One of Bach’s most beautiful chorale preludes from the Orgelbüchlein, and supplicatory in tone, is Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639. The words from the hymn that forms the foundation of the piece translate as ‘Lord, hear the voice of my complaint, To Thee I now commend me.’ It’s a short piece, and can be performed in its entirety at the start of a service.

Recommended recording: 

Stephen Farr (organ)
Resonus RES10259

Bach: O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, BWV 622

Another exquisite gem by Bach which would be suitable for a funeral is O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross BWV 622, again from the Orgelbüchlein – this time, a longer work that will be perfect for the period before the service, or straight afterwards as mourners leave the building.

In terms of the larger works, head for the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544, a work of great tragedy but considerable musical interest. Beware the fiddly fugue, with its intricate double subject towards the end. For the more ambitious, ask the organist about playing the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582, a work of great beauty imbued with a stately melancholy.

Recommended recording:

David Goode (organ)
Signum Classics SGCD 812

Ten more of the best pieces of organ music for funerals:

  1. Boellmann: Prière à Notre-Dame from Suite Gothique
  2. Widor: second movement from Symphonie gothique
  3. Vaughan Williams: Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’
  4. Flor Peeters: Adagio from Suite Modale or his Aria
  5. Handel: Ombra mai fu from Serse
  6. Percy Whitlock: Folk Tune
  7. Mendelssohn: Allegretto from Sonata No. 4 in B flat
  8. Howells: Psalm Prelude, Set 1, Op. 32 No. 2
  9. De Grigny: Tierce en taille from Livre d’Orgue
  10. Brahms: O Welt, ich muss dich lassen Op. 122 No. 3

Best songs and choral works for funerals

Schubert: Ave Maria

If you have a singer, this could be a perfect choice, its beautiful melody set above a gentle, hypnotic arpeggio accompaniment.

Recommended recording:

Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Moore (piano)
Warner Classics 5862512

Fauré: Pie Jesu from the Requiem

Of all the Pie Jesu settings, Fauré’s is the simplest and most affecting. A beautiful choice for any part of the service.

Recommended recording:

Corydon Singers & English Chamber Orchestra/Matthew Best
Hyperion CDA66292

Handel: He shall feed his flock from Messiah

Another simple and moving piece, beloved by so many, with a reassuring message.

Mozart or Elgar: Ave Verum

If you do have access to a choir at the church, both Elgar’s and Mozart’s settings are straightforward for most – perfect after a reading or eulogy.

Recommended recording: 

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
DG 4860525

The best hymns for a funeral

Here is a list of 18 hymns suitable for a funeral:

  1. Abide with me
  2. Lord of all hopefulness
  3. Love divine (tune by John Stainer)
  4. The Lord’s my shepherd
  5. Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round (tune by Gibbons)
  6. O God, our help in ages past
  7. An evening hymn (tune by Tallis)
  8. All my hope on God is founded (tune by Howells)
  9. My song is love unknown
  10. The King of love my shepherd is
  11. Lead us, heavenly Father
  12. The Church’s one foundation (tune by SS Wesley)
  13. Come down, O love divine
  14. There is a green hill far away
  15. Dear Lord and Father of mankind
  16. All things bright and beautiful
  17. Amazing Grace
  18. Nearer My God to Thee

You can find the lyrics to some of your favourite hymns here

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