What song would you want played at your funeral?
Angel and I were eating a rushed breakfast before a morning meeting. We’d picked a little diner in West Seattle that happened to be half record store, half greasy spoon. David Bowie’s song “Sound and Vision” played on the speakers overhead, and as I checked my Facebook feed, a post stopped me cold: “It is as if the brightest light in the universe has burnt out. We will miss you starman.” I felt a resounding “no” echo through my entire body. David Bowie was dead. “Sound and Vision” was playing as a lament.
I had never before been affected by the death of a musician or actor. I’d never judged this response in people, but until January 10, 2016, I had no way of understanding it. I had no way of knowing that Bowie’s death would impact me so powerfully. Tears streamed down my face.
Angel was immediately alarmed and tender, and I felt like I might start bawling like a child. It is not even that I am the biggest Bowie fan, but in looking back on this experience and my sense of grief and loss around his death, I realize that his existence—his incredibly bold, unwavering commitment to expand our consciousness, to push at the edges of convention or flat-out break them—made me feel safe in this world. In countless ways Bowie had given me and so many of us permission to explore our own edges. A world without him felt immediately less.
Bowie shows us that music touches a part of us that isn’t necessarily logical, that goes where words can’t and instead lands in the realm of feeling—this is why music and grief are so entwined. It is hard to imagine a funeral or a memorial without music.
I consider “What song would you want played at your funeral? Who would sing it?” as an icebreaker prompt, a safe question.
It’s a question you can ask your parents, your spouse, or grandparents without tripping the full-scale alarm that you are asking them to consider their own mortality. We live during the era of the playlist, and so it can act as conversation starter that engages in an unthreatening way. I use it when I’ve gathered a bunch of strangers to talk about death, and though there is usually laughter and some wistfulness in the answers, you might be surprised how quickly this question can move into the depths.
I’m always struck by the diversity of the responses: one person wants Louis Armstrong back from the dead to remind us “What a Wonderful World” we live in, another Merle Haggard, another wants Tupac in holograph-form breaking down “Only God Can Judge Me,” and many of the answers are personal, not grand—a sister or best friend singing “Over the Rainbow.”
Torrie Fields, a palliative-care advocate, answered this question like she had been rehearsing it for decades, and it turns out she has. “My mom would sing Billy Joel’s ‘Vienna,’” she said. “And when the second verse starts, my best friends would start singing the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be.’” The two bookend each other, she explained. “‘Vienna’ is the song that has summed up my life. ‘Let It Be’ I hope is how I am remembered.”
It isn’t common for someone to assign the singing part to a parent. One of the few orders we all try to follow in the universe is that a child should outlive the parent. But Torrie was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer when she was only nineteen and had seven surgeries in three years. Though she was in remission, the cancer came back when she was twenty-nine. Now she’s thirtytwo, and the cancer is again in remission, for now.
“Vienna,” which is tattooed on Torrie’s right hip, was the song her mom sang to her as a child. “My mom’s obsessed with Billy Joel, which means I am obsessed with Billy Joel. Instead of nursery rhymes, she sang Billy Joel to me.” “Vienna” was the most fitting song for Torrie, with its admonitions to “Slow down, you crazy child,” and “you can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”
“I was always this crazy kid who was running, running, running as fast as possible,” she said. “If I’d slowed down, I would have fallen apart, so I just kept running.”
“Having cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It oriented me, taught me what mattered. Showed me who mattered, and I found out who I am.”
Torrie’s mom always said that “Vienna” must have been written for her daughter. “The song taught me to honor old age and death. That there is something beyond productivity. No matter what happens, you don’t have to prove that you are productive; you only have to prove that you’re a good person. I would hope that my friends would retain that memory of me. Not the running, running, running.” That’s why “Let It Be,” sung by her friends, would be the perfect response to “Vienna.” Torrie wanted her friends to think of her as having transcended the need to be doing all the time.
I asked if she’d thought about what it would be like for her mom and her friends to sing in that context. “I imagine they’d fall apart,” I offered.
“Yeah, and that’s okay,” she said. “It’s almost the beauty of it, to fall apart. It is okay to fall apart to these songs. I’ve devoted a lot of my life to create better spaces for grief in my community and friend group. I’ve found, over time, that the more I’m able to create these spaces for grief, where I can name my grief, the more open people are to share theirs. I can only hope my death would reflect that.”
Excerpt from "Let's Talk About Death (Over Dinner)" courtesy of the author.