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  • Writer's pictureBryan W. Conway

April 2022 Newsletter: My Death Songs 🎶💀⚰️

My Death Songs

The first time I considered my death songs was while planning my mother’s funeral in 2015. A death song is not a dirge, the somber music played at a funeral; it is a song that is meaningful to the deceased that is played during the viewing or ceremony.

My mother’s funeral home included a video montage of her photos as part of the service, which required the gathering, scanning, and forwarding of dozens of pictures. The video would be played on a loop on a television set throughout her viewing. As the executor of her estate and eldest child, I had the honor of selecting two of my mom’s favorite songs as the soundtrack.

Until that point, I had never considered what songs she would desire for her wake. It had not occurred to me to have that discussion with her, even as we discussed other funeral details as her health declined. The video memorial itself was relatively new to me; most families just created photo collages on poster boards for visitors to view (we did that as well).

I reflected upon which songs Mom liked for a few days. I would describe her taste in music as eclectic, but mostly favoring the music of the 1960s and 70s. Growing up, she listened to everything from Motown to rock & roll to top 40 to disco. She was a fan of the Beatles and Elvis and actually cried when John Lennon and Elvis died prematurely. It was challenging to select just two songs from the vast library of music she enjoyed.

After a great deal of deliberation, I went with “Good Day Sunshine” by the Beatles and “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin. My mom had all of the Beatles albums on vinyl and it was hard to pick just one song. I remembered her singing along to “Good Day Sunshine” as a kid, so I went with it.

“Thank You” was the song I chose for the mother/son dance at my wedding ten years earlier. Mom didn't listen to Led Zeppelin, but I picked that song because it expressed my gratitude for her being such a wonderful mother. I took care of her during the last few years of her life, and since planning the funeral was entirely on my shoulders, I didn’t think it was too self-indulgent to choose “Thank You”. I felt comfortable that she would have approved.

On the day of her wake, I probably watched her video fifty times. It was a pictorial journey through my mom’s life, from her childhood through her final years. Everyone who watched the video enjoyed it and many remarked how the music was a great fit. Even years later as I type this, they softly echo in my mind and provide me with an odd sort of comfort.

Although I don’t believe I am anywhere close to the point where I must nail down these sorts of details for myself (or so I think, one never knows), the experience moved me to reflect upon my own death songs. This is a challenge due to my musical tastes.

I stopped evolving musically in the late 1990s, when grunge music (and some say rock music itself) died an unceremonious death. I love all of the rock music from that era, from traditional to metal and thrash. But those genres pose issues for a funeral home environment that is hushed and tranquil. The process would have been so much simpler if I was into Bette Midler, Whitney Houston, or Josh Groban.

Most of the songs I enjoy are chaotic and fast-paced, with some angst-ridden, brooding, long-haired, tattooed renegade angrily screaming over loud guitars and a driving drumbeat. I am a naturally calm and mellow person (mostly), so I don't need music that further lowers my heart rate.

While my death songs are about me, I must keep in mind that there is a minimal level of sensitivity required here; forcing my kids to listen to Slayer, Korn, or Pantera on a loop all day at my viewing would likely be traumatic for them, no matter what age they are when I die.

After much contemplation, I arrived at the following two songs: “I Am the Highway” by the Audioslave and “Minerva” by the Deftones. No, seriously, those are the songs. Some of you are familiar with “I Am the Highway” and almost no one has ever heard of “Minerva.”

Why these two songs? First of all, neither will make your ears bleed. Okay, there are parts of “I Am the Highway” where Chris Cornell is loudly projecting his powerful voice, but only for short bursts at the end. Second, there are lyrics in these songs that really resonate with me. Third, the music is heavy, melodic, and memorable. These songs are substantial and have gravity.

There is so much there that I like. I only hope that some of it isn’t painful to people who love me. But let’s be honest – how many will actually listen to the lyrics?

As a lifelong introvert and socially awkward person, I am constantly lost in the cities and alone in the hills. I am the guy who didn’t suffer measurably during the Covid lockdowns and could probably survive indefinitely if I had a bottomless pot of black coffee and an endless supply of good books.

The late Chris Cornell’s voice is pure power, and I want that power at my wake, even if it may be a little unconventional.

The grinding, almost off-key sound to the music is perfect. Is death a strange numb? And God bless you all. It is presented with sincerity and depth, without artificialness or sanctimony.

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom. Those who really know me may feel that this lends a little irony to it all.

“I Am the Highway” will play first, the background music to rolling pictures of me as a baby, a child, a teen, and a young adult. “Minerva” can take over in my 30s and run through to the end.

It starts off with long and weary my road has been, like every man’s road, and at the end, it brings my knees to the earth.


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