Music is an important element of a funeral ceremony because it helps us to process feelings that are difficult to put into words. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt tells us, music imprints itself on our hearts more than any other experience in life. For people of faith, these feelings are often best expressed in hymns, which are songs of devotion or praise to God. If you are looking for timeless songs of faith to honor the life of a loved one, you may want to consider using one of these 10 beautiful hymns.
10. It is Well With My Soul
written by Horatio Gates Spafford, 1873
“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Spafford’s devout hymn was composed in the midst of great tragedy. After sending his family ahead of him on a boat to England, he received a telegram from his wife informing him that their ship had sunk in the Atlantic and that his four daughters had all passed away. In the aftermath of the event, Spafford wrote one of the most memorable of all hymns. Devoid of bitterness, the song is a testament to the level of Spafford’s faith even in the worst of times. His firm belief in the return of the Lord, vividly described as a day when the clouds will be “rolled back as a scroll,” is a beautiful sentiment that and reminds Christian believers of the true home where loved ones reside.
9. Great is Thy Faithfulness
written by Thomas O. Chisolm, 1923
“‘Great is Thy faithfulness!’ ‘Great is Thy faithfulness!’
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
‘Great is Thy faithfulness,’ Lord, unto me!”
After the loss of a loved one, people often experience disorientation and confusion. How do we respond to loss, and how do we find a way to continue to live our lives? So much changes when a loved one passes away, and the natural response is to look for something to cling to. The words of this 20th century hymn provide a reminder of the things that are constant in the world. People of faith will find great comfort in singing, “Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not, / As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” While nothing can take away the pain of loss, this hymn reminds the mourner that some things in life always stay the same.
8. I Need Thee
written by Annie Hawks and Robert Lowry, 1872
“I need Thee, oh, I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
Oh, bless me now, my Savior!
I come to Thee.”
“Every hour I need thee.” Not monthly, weekly, or daily. Hourly. The speaker requires the assistance of the Lord in every activity and situation to see it through to completion. Every step of the journey is difficult, and requires the presence of God. A cry of devotion in times of hardship, this 19th century favorite touches on themes of perseverance, faith, suffering, and comfort. For funeral attendees, it can be viewed as a request for God’s guidance through every stage of the grief journey. The knowledge of God’s presence is an encouragement to mourners as they prepare for a new way of life and set out on the road to healing.
7. Abide With Me
written by Henry Francis Lyte, 1847
“Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
Faced with tuberculosis and the knowledge of his impending death, the 54-year-old Henry Francis Lyte used his time of trial as an opportunity to write one of the most beautiful and well-loved of all hymns. Not surprisingly, it has become a popular choice for spiritual funerals. The fact that Lyte was so close to death’s door makes this reflection on mortality and his personal relationship with God all the more powerful. But the song appeals not only to those nearing the end of their lives, but also to mourners who are facing the end of a certain way of life: life with their loved one. Funeral audiences can identify with Lyte’s heartfelt request for God to stay with him as “the darkness deepens.”
6. ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus
written by Louisa Stead, 1882
“‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word;
Just to rest upon His promise;
Just to know, Thus saith the Lord.”
Like most of the hymns on this list, this 19th century classic gives mourners a source of stability, a rock to lean on in times of hardship. Funeral audiences can find peace of mind in the knowledge that the stress, fear, and doubt that often accompany a loss are in the hands of a higher power. Stead suggests that there is no need to hold on to anything or to assume a heavy burden. Our sole responsibility is “Just from Jesus simply taking, / life, and rest, and joy, and peace.” While this assurance does not eradicate the pain of loss, it does provide some comfort and can serve to alleviate the irrational guilt, frustration, and stress that people often wrestle with on the road to recovery.
5. Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer
written by William Williams, 1745
“Guide me, O thou great redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
Hold me with thy powerful hand.”
William Williams frames his most famous hymn in terms of a journey. In all three stanzas, he asks God to guide him on his course. In the first stanza, he is a pilgrim wandering through a barren land. In the second, he uses imagery from Exodus 13, asking God to bring fire and a pillar of cloud to lead the way. And in the third, he is traveling across the Jordan to get to the land of Canaan. All three images correlate to the path that the mourner takes on his grief journey. Williams’ steadfast reliance on God during times of painful and frightening transition is relatable to mourners, making this three-and-a-half-century-old hymn as timely and relevant as the day it was written.
4. In the Sweet By and By
written by Sanford Fillmore Bennett, 1868
“There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.”
An obvious choice for inclusion in any collection of comforting hymns, this hopeful and faith-driven song communicates a sense of peace to the listener by drawing upon imagery of another, happier land. For funeral audiences, the song’s use of the image of a faraway shore implies that loved ones are at peace with the Lord. While this knowledge doesn’t take away the pain that mourners feel, it offers some light during a difficult time. Bennett claims that after death, “our spirits shall sorrow no more, / Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.” This emphasis on rest and peace encourages loved ones and provides them with inner strength as they work through their grief.
3. Amazing Grace
written by John Newton, 1779
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”
Probably the most famous of all hymns, this song of redemption penned by a slave-trader-turned-abolitionist has captured the hearts of countless Christians. While certain stanzas dealing with sin and repentance may seem less suited to a funeral audience, the song’s reputation as a sort of anthem of Christianity makes it a great choice for any religious event. And there’s no doubt that the final stanza, with its beautiful depiction of the afterlife, will speak directly to the concerns of mourners. Amazing Grace taps into the essence of what it means to believe in God, and the universal love that believers bestow on it indicate that it is a powerful representation of the faith. For a funeral ceremony, you may want to consider singing at least a few stanzas of this masterpiece.
2. I’ll Fly Away
written by Albert E. Brumley, 1929
“Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away.”
This extremely popular gospel song speaks to our desire for peace. Brumley views death as a time of joy and rest, as opposed to this life, which he describes as “shadows,” “prison bars,” and “weary days.” By framing life’s transience in a positive light, the song encourages us to see the full scope of the drama, the larger picture. The troubles and pains of this life are but a tiny moment in time compared to the eternal land that awaits the speaker. The upbeat melody conveys not only joy and peace, but also confidence and steadfastness: “I’ll fly away” is not spoken as a mere possibility to be entertained, but as a reality that the speaker is fixated upon with absolute conviction. To sing this familiar gospel song in a funeral setting is to feel the pain of absence while simultaneously receiving the assurance that the spirit of a loved one has “flown away” to be with the Lord.
1. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
written by Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman, 1887
“What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.”
When it comes to comforting hymns, this beautiful song of surrender is unmatched. These three stanzas, accompanied by a simple refrain, contain everything that you could want in a song for a religious funeral: a gorgeous melody, a modest length, and reassuring words of peace. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is to religious hymns what Psalm 23 is to religious writing. It is a perfect lyrical distillation of the human soul’s devotion to God. For mourners faced with the emotional exhaustion that accompanies the loss of a loved one, it’s a blessing to hear that one can lean on the everlasting arms of God and rest “safe and secure from all alarms.” The theme of security applies equally well to those who are living and to those who have passed on. God’s love and peace is available in the here and now, as well as in the hereafter.
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