The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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A Soundtrack to Modern Grief

What song do you want at your funeral?

Perhaps you’ve already got one picked out, or you’re going to leave it up to your loved ones to choose a theme from your life to celebrate with music. Something poignant as the ‘end credits’ are rolling.

As one individual’s funeral music offers an insight into their character, trends in funeral songs say something significant about our culture. An annual survey from a chain of funeral directors recently showed that, for the first time, there were no hymns among the top ten songs. More popular are Frank Sinatra’s defiant My Way and Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again. The only entry from this decade is Ed Sheeran’s Supermarket Flowers, taken from his 2017 album Divide.

The song offers a fascinating reflection on modern grief. The verse details the banal inconvenience of bereavement: the sorting, tidying, and emptying. Then he suddenly declares: ‘So I’ll sing hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my Mum.’ These bold ‘truth claims’ come out of the blue, and his portrayal of life, death, and angels seems to be grasping for something out of reach.

Ed was a chorister in his youth, and Supermarket Flowers sometimes sounds like theology from a half-remembered childhood – when faced with the tragedy of death, we want to believe there’s something bigger at play. ‘I know that when God took you back he said hallelujah you’re home’, claims Ed. Perhaps seemingly comforting words like these are why the song resonates with a nation who may not have had any reason to be in church during adult life. Many of these people nonetheless feel like they’ve got to make some sense of the tragedy of death, and live a good-enough life that God would welcome them back.

To be sure, there are mysteries surrounding death and what comes after it, but our Christian faith is based on Jesus’ concrete, historical, overcoming of death. And when everything else is stripped away, the main thing Ed wants for his loved one is to be ‘back home’, celebrating, intimate with God. And that is something only Jesus can deliver.


Nathan Hodson
Nathan researches healthcare policy and ethics in the East Midlands.


  1. Sheeran’s half-remembered spirituality sounds a bit like what I heard in an episode of the BBC World Service’s ‘Heart and Soul’ about modern spirituality in Britain.

    By Alfred J  -  21 Jun 2019
  2. Thank you for this insightful article. As a retired church pastor of thirty years and a newly hired hospice chaplain, I too have seen the decline of spiritual hymns as part of the funeral service. Sadly, when people without Christ try to make sense of the deceased’s life and death, pop culture songs or theologically bankrupt songs offer no lasting hope. Perhaps that is why the funeral service is being re-branded – “Celebration of Life” service.

    Hmmm, maybe it’s time to reread Ecclesiastes, as Solomon offers godly counsel for all of us.

    By Phil Andrukaitis  -  21 Jun 2019
  3. Hi Nathan
    Like you I am in the healthcare and ethics space and liked your blog very much.

    Artificial artificial intelligence now seems the force to be reckoned with. I wonder what music AI would chose if its algorythm was given all the facts about death and Jesus and resurrection?

    Keep up the good work & best regards, Jane

    By Jane  -  21 Jun 2019
  4. Really sorry to say this… but we are so in danger of being arrogant and missing the point here. So after reading this post I went to listen to said Supermarket Flowers… ‘A heart that’s been broken is a heart that’s been loved.’ Not a bad description of the pain of love… and then God described as singing Hallelujah that his loved ones is coming home. Frankly you know nothing of the spirituality of Ed’s Mum! Nor do I, except you tell me that he was sent to choir or something as a boy… tells us something perhaps. But this is the bit that really gets me:

    The verse details the banal inconvenience of bereavement: the sorting, tidying, and emptying. Then he suddenly declares: ‘So I’ll sing hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my Mum.’ These bold ‘truth claims’ come out of the blue, and his portrayal of life, death, and angels seems to be grasping for something out of reach.

    I thought LICC believed in ‘Missional Discipleship’ exactly that in the Banal in the ordinary, the sorting and the tidying we might just encounter God. Sounds to me like Ed felt God at this moment and cried the most ancient of prayers… Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

    I urge us to be very careful when we dismiss other’s incomplete, perhaps poorly understood grasping… that we are not actually missing the divine mystery ourselves. Anyway thanks for the article… I will be using the song at the bereavement service planned for this Sunday!! I don’t like it that much, perhaps a bit self indulgent… but it is tangible and real..the real stuff of bereavement, tidying clothes into a suitcase etc. For those of you now worried about my spiritual state… we will also be singing hymns and offering I hope our Christian hope in Christ.

    By Stephen Newell (Rev)  -  21 Jun 2019
    • Dear Stephen – Many thanks for your reflections. As one of the LICC team members involved in preparing these pieces for publication, I want to affirm that our intention here was pretty much along the positive and constructive lines you suggest – certainly not to be arrogant, but to reflect on the yearning and searching which is captured in Ed Sheeran’s song about death. The piece wasn’t seeking to comment on the spiritual state of Ed or his Mum, but simply to say that – from a Christian perspective – the heartfelt yearning and longing for hope expressed in the song is met supremely in Jesus. In addition, please be assured that no criticism of the significance of the banal moments that come with bereavement is intended or implied in the piece. To your point, these are necessary, so-called ‘ordinary’ moments necessary in processing grief in which God is very much present. Peace be with you, and all strength and grace for your bereavement service this coming Sunday.

      By Antony Billington  -  21 Jun 2019
  5. I’m a minister. All the funerals I conduct have hymns (I live in a fairly traditional community) but most have at least one song as well. I listen to the songs in advance, and try to find something to say about them that links them into Christian belief. It’s surprising what you can find, it you look!

    By Moira Biggins  -  22 Jun 2019
  6. Hi, thanks for this interesting and correct analyses of what’s played at funerals. I am a chaplain who has the privilege of leading many families through a funeral services. Ed has been played a lot at my funerals as has Frank. Last week a song was played by Wham, yes you heard it here first, Wham: Wake me up before you go go!

    We live in times where hymns are played less and less, why? We are not making many new hymns and if we are the unchurched are not hearing them. They will pick music for funerals for two reasons, in my opinion. One: because the deceased liked it and it creates memories for the family. Two: music like Ed’s, to them, have a spiritual thing going on, they could be spiritual people yet have no belief in the religious.

    So….I agree with you Nathan, Jesus is missing from it all, the truth is that in 40-50 years there won’t be any hymns sung at all, as I said we don’t sing that many now! We do sing songs for our culture now, which are not made to sing at funerals, forgetting that we only have 25-30 mins for the whole funeral service!

    It might be helpful to have more Christians in music leaving us hymns we can sing at our funerals.

    By Mary Causer  -  22 Jun 2019
  7. Thanks Nathan. I think you hit the nail on the head.
    No matter how sympathetic we might be to any genuine heartache or how sensitive to the tragic in the commonplace, your article criticised neither, but simply showed the inadequacy of staying with JUST that.
    We forget too easily that we are not, by nature neutral towards God!
    We ache & we cry to our idea-of-God in a crisis but there is a strange quasi-heathen ‘spirituality’ which is increasingly popular & keeps claiming that the dead have become angels!
    It takes courage to stand up & critique this dangerously complacent ‘vogue’ but you did so, quite tactfully (I thought), & I, for one, thank you for it.

    By Michael Brittain  -  26 Jun 2019

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