I am on the lookout for good songs to sing at bad times. I want songs of grief and loss, suitable for amateur musicians like me to sing at funerals and memorial services, that do not mention gods, creators, heaven, or other fables. I am looking for “Good Godless Grief Songs”.

In the last few years I have been to a steady drip of memorial services: for my mother-in-law this month, for my aunt, for my mother, for my uncle, for other relatives, for a person killed while participating in my risky sport, and more. I am at the time in my life where that happens. At these events, people grieve. Music, of course, is a powerful comfort and solvent for human emotions. (For more on this idea, read Karl Paulnack’s stunning Welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, 2004.) There should be music at such events. Ideally, it is music performed at the event, not merely a recording played. Even better, it’s music that everyone can join in to sing.

The last 1000 years of the western musical tradition has produced many beautiful, powerful works which have been a comfort for many a grieving person at many a memorial service. But the vast majority of those works have words drawn from the western Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Understandable, given especially the Christian churches’ roles in sponsoring musical culture for religious ends in those 10 centuries. However, I don’t subscribe to those religions, and I crave grief music free of that religious content. I crave “godless grief songs”. And I want them to be moving, to be beautiful and powerful music: I want them to be “good godless grief songs”.

Such works exist. I’ve made a list below of some works I have found. I’ve also listed some web pages where others have gathered lists of good godless grief songs. But there should be more. I hope that putting a name to the genre will encourage more people to catalogue them, more composers to write them, and more patrons to commission them.  And, as someone pointed out to me, composers need words to set to music. So we also need “good godless grief poems”.

What makes a “good godless grief song”? Here is what I look for.

It should be a song: music and words combined. Music without words can be beautiful, and can be of great solace. Music without words is also mostly clean of religious meaning. But music without words is not rare, so I don’t feel a need to focus on collecting it. Also, words are powerful vehicles for channeling grief and bringing solace. Words make a song something the entire group can sing.

It should be about grief, loss, pain, solace, and moving on. There are many other powerful and appropriate subjects for music: joy, love, beauty, humour. Those are wonderful, except not of much use at a memorial service.

It should be “godless“, or if you prefer call it humanist, or atheist, or non-religious. It should engage in grief without calling on concepts like god, heaven, better places, souls, spirits, angels, Jesus, etc.

It should be “good“: good music, and good at its job of providing solace in a time of grief. I have a hunch you can measure “good” by how many people get how much solace from the music. If many people want to use it in memorial services, if many people can sing it, if its construction and instrumentation afford performing even by modest musicians and simple instruments, if it comes up often, it is “better”. A piano reduction will be “better” than a full-orchestra tone poem.  Many hymns are extraordinarily “good” by this measure. The hymns that have stood the test of time in church hymnals have done so because the reach more people, are more singable, hold up well under a wide range of skill levels and instrumentation. The big problem with hymns is finding those which are “godless”. Finally, I believe that music performed by a group can be more powerfully comforting than music performed by musicians separated from the group, and music performed at an event is generally more powerful than a recording of a music performance.  So, I am not looking for recordings to play, I am looking for compositions which regular participants can perform.

I have a scene in my head for when I most want to have a good godless grief song: when there is a gathering of grieving, pulled together ad hoc, in need of solace but without planned music or amplification. I want a to be able to sing a good godless grief song by myself (or maybe with just a guitar or piano), and bring the comfort of music to that gathering, without the baggage of theistic ideas.

I’m tempted to start a project to collect suggestions to include in a catalogue of good godless grief songs. Sadly, I’m not in a position to do that project justice right now. I will list a few songs, and song lists, which I know of. If you know of others, I welcome links to them in the comments below.

Here are some good godless grief songs I know of:

  • Simple Gifts, the traditional Shaker hymn with words by Elder Joseph Brackett. Despite its religious origins, the song itself is quite godless. It is well-known, and people sing it quite readily. It was part of the memorial service for my father, my mother, and my mother-in-law. It isn’t explicitly about grief, however. It fit well into a sister’s wedding as well.
  • Fire and Rain, by James Taylor. It needs a dispensation for a quick mention of “Jesus”, but overlook that and it’s a touching tale of an unexpected death. My brother sang this at my father’s funeral.
  • What A Wonderful World, by by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, well known for the Louis Armstrong performance. My aunt’s family asked me to sing this at her funeral.
  • Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, by Eric Idle. It won’t fit every situation, but when it fits, it fits so well!

Here are some lists of godless grief songs compiled by others:

Songs incorporate poems. A catalogue of good godless grief verses provide material for composers to turn into good godless grief songs.

Do you have any to suggest?