10 Classical Music Selections for Funerals

When finding out someone you loved has passed away, there’s little that can comfort us. Unlike a wound of the flesh, there is no band-aid to magically make us feel better. Emotional salves are different for everyone, but the support of friends and family, food and music can provide much-needed relief. In this list of classical music for funerals, I’ve put together a selection of classical pieces that can be played during the ceremony to create a memorable and meaningful tribute to those who have passed away.​

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Anton Dvorak - Symphony No. 9, Largo, 2nd Mvmt.

Coffin on stage
Classical Funeral Music. Jupiterimages / Getty Images

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After coming to the United States, Dvorak composed his 9th symphony in 1893, in the spirit of African American and American Indian folklore. He achieved his greatest success at the world premier of this symphony with the New York Philharmonic in New York City. I find that the largo movement is even more poignant if you know the lyrics to the choral version and recite them in your head as you listen to the music. (Watch this YouTube clip of the choral version, “Goin’ Home.”)

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Claude Debussy - La cathédrale engloutie

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It’s common knowledge around here that my affinity for this piece runs deep. It’s been over a decade since I first heard La cathédrale engloutie performed at a graduate piano recital. As I described once before, in the middle of the performance it felt like it was just me and the piano. Time had stopped and I was transported to a world Debussy created. This is a perfect piece for remembering the lives of your loved ones.

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Gabriel Faure - “In Paradisum” from Requiem

In the wise words of Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. This gorgeous piece of music from Faure’s Requiem will calm your soul as you say your goodbyes to those who have departed this world. The Latin text is a prayer to the angels to lead the departed spirits into paradise where they will be met by martyrs who will escort them into the holy city of Jerusalem.

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Gabriel Faure - “Pie Jesu” from Requiem

This sweet angelic song is a prayer to the Lord to provide the deceased everlasting rest. Written by Gabriel Faure between 1887 and 1890, “Pie Jesu” is the fourth movement in his famous Requiem. Unlike many other great requiems, Faure’s is very intimate. The delicate and fragile nature of this piece inspires a deep introspection and imparts an atmosphere of reverence.

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Giuseppe Verdi - “Ave Maria" from Otello

This sublime aria comes from Verdi’s second to last opera, Otello, first performed in 1887. Sung by the character Desdemona in her final hour, the “Ave Maria” is a prayer for peace in a world turned upside down by her jealous lover, Otello. Its opening bars are quiet and breath-like, conveying Desdemona’s desperation. As it progresses, it slowly grows into a great plea before ending with a simple, exasperated “Amen.”

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Maurice Durufle - Ubi caritas

Written as part of a set of four motets in 1960, the light of Durufle’s Ubi caritas shines brightest. Despite its brevity, the piece speaks to the heart and provides solace, even if you don’t know the meaning of its text.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

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Morten Lauridsen - O Magnum Mysterium

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Despite its liturgical texts celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and its normal Christmastime performances, Lauridsen’s choral masterpiece can really pull at the heart strings. Throughout the piece, Lauridsen employs rich harmonic textures with occasional atonalities while performed a Capella. I take comfort knowing that despite humanities differences, we can join one another in voice and sound to create music that transcends both time and space.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending

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Perhaps my most favorite Vaughan Williams piece, The Lark Ascending takes on many different meanings depending on your mood. When you’re happy, it inspires the memories that lead you to the moment. When you’re sad, it provides peace and catharsis. Composed in 1914, Williams based The Lark Ascending on a poem by English poet, George Meredith, and published text along with the score:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

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Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings

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This unforgettable adagio is famously known for its pathos. For those stoic enough to sit through a funeral without shedding a tear, you will have a hard time keeping composure once this adagio begins. It has a profound effect on its listeners; the remarkable ability to draw ones self into a quiet and deep meditation. Because of this, Barber's Adagio for Strings was played at the funerals of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as Princess Grace and Raineir III, Prince of Monaco.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Ave Verum Corpus

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Written in 1791, this choral work by the great Mozart can help mend a broken heart. Yes, we all suffer, but like Jesus whom also suffered, may we receive blessed salvation and partake in the heavenly banquet in the afterlife.