In the opening scenes of “The Big Chill,” Lawrence Kasdan’s fine 1983 film, a group of aging former 60’s radicals gather in a stately Baptist church for the funeral service of a friend who has committed suicide.
“Rock of Ages” is being played on the organ as people assemble in the pews. A traditional sermon, which touches on suicide and the need for a renewal of hope, follows.
As the rites conclude, the minister announces that the deceased’s favorite song would be performed.
Actress JoBeth Williams goes to the organ and begins playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” from the Rolling Stones 1969 album, “Let It Bleed.” Immediately the other cast members — including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt — smile, not only in recognition of the irony of the song being played in a church setting, but also because it makes a statement about their dead friend.
Even though Kasdan made the film in the early 80’s, a rock song at a formal funeral in a traditional church (the filming location was the Sand Hill Baptist Church, Varnville, South Carolina) was considered progressive.
Funerals had always been more the province of Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt — not the contemporary versions of their work, but the etiquette books Post wrote in 1922 and Vanderbilt (“A Guide to Gracious Living”) published in 1952.
Change comes slowly in the funeral industry.
The views of Post, Vanderbilt and other arbiters of civilized taste reflected a proper perspective in a different time; their books have been updated through the years, and are actually very helpful in our current time.
But the funeral industry remained pretty much in the past, staid and conventional.
Post believed that the “necessity of dignity cannot be overemphasized” at a funeral.
But how she defined dignity reflected an earlier era. For example, her feelings about funeral music: “it is almost impossible to introduce orchestral music that does not sound either dangerously suggestive of the gaiety of entertainment or else thin and flat.”
Vanderbilt felt that those attending funerals should wear clothes “one would wear to church.”
As for jewelry, she said that “any costume jewelry, diamond rings, bracelets and anklets should be dispensed with.”
Her position on post-funeral behavior of the surviving spouse was equally clear: after a three month period of time, they could begin to have “quiet dates.”
Both writers had firm perspectives about the conduct of ushers, pallbearers and others participating in the service. Very specific rules about how to compose appropriate thank you notes were proffered.
Today, the emphasis is on personalization and individuality with fewer ridged rules. Many are billed as “celebrations” of life, which are dignified and respectful, but in keeping with contemporary mores.
There are, of course, elements of a funeral that will never change. The need to mourn has been recognized since primitive times and will always be the central theme of any send-off. The substance has not changed, but the style definitely has.
There are more than 21,000 funeral homes in the United States, and while they all have different approaches to their services, it’s a safe bet that all agree that the most important consideration is to give the family of the deceased exactly what that family wants.
Consequently, choices in all areas abound – for instance, it’s not uncommon for a funeral home to feature ten or more categories of music that can be employed during the ceremony. Everything from traditional religious hymns to love songs, golden oldies, classic rock, sentimental favorites, and yes, even “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Side note: one of the more popular songs used at funerals is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. It was one of his two hits (the other being “Strangers in the Night”) that the singer did not like. Because the song was so embraced by the public, Sinatra would perform it in large venues — but in smaller rooms, like Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the setting was intimate, he often times skipped it.
Readings at the service can include traditional scripture, poetry, and original compositions by family members.
Funerals are all about remembering the deceased, providing comfort to the family and acknowledging the loss. Big budgets aren’t necessary, religious affiliation isn’t required and formal, fixed practices are only one option.
In a recent “Dear Abby” column, Jeanne Phillips, wrote to a reader: “Someone’s attire at a funeral is far less important than what is in the person’s heart.”