Figuring out how to say final farewell … with music [Unscripted column] | Entertainment

I will be 65 years old next month. And while I don’t plan on retiring any time soon, let alone dying, these milestone birthdays — and added senior discounts — can certainly inspire a person to reflect on the past and how prepared they are for the future are.

Perhaps it was Monday’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral that has seen commentators repeatedly remind us that many aspects of this royal farewell have been in the planning for decades.

Apparently I’ve been getting brochures from funeral homes since I was in my late 40’s. “Are you ready? Do your loved ones know what you want?”

Yes, I have these practical decisions to make: Should I donate my body to science? If “to dust I will return,” what cool places should I ask my family to gather while they scatter my ashes to the wind?

Finding a poem for a funeral reading is also important. I have a fondness for Billy Collins’ The Afterlife, in which he posits that every person who dies ends up in exactly the place they always imagined – from a heavenly choir to animal reincarnation.

However, my recent planning for the Final Countdown had a more important consideration: After dancing my last tango with the Grim Reaper, what music should be played at a memorial service for a certain Mary Ellen Wright? How do I want to entertain my loved ones after I’m gone, and what musical message do I want to leave behind about who I was?

I’m not much of an anthem person these days. My selection of memorial songs has to be a little more unconventional.

I think I started thinking about all of this about 40 years ago. In 1981, while working for a newspaper in Stroudsburg, I was covering a funeral for a jazz bar owner who had been murdered. A baritone sang a soulful rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “(In My) Solitude,” and not a dry eye stayed. Then and there I thought: I want to sing that at my funeral one day.

Ron Sexsmith sings in Los Angeles

Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith performs at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles in 2006. His “God Loves Everyone” is a song with an ecumenical message.

It’s still on the “possible” list. It’s sad, but I’m torn if the lyrics really say what I want to say, as they involve being “haunted” by an old love. But I like the idea of ​​celebrating the lonely parts of my life — and reminding my loved ones of this whole “haunting” thing. If this tune makes the final cut, it has to be the rendition of Ella Fitzgerald – one of my favorite singers.

One song I’m dying to include in my memorial program is Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s “God Loves Everyone.” His message about God’s love and acceptance of all people – sinners and saints, believers and unbelievers – pretty much represents my personal theology.

I love the melody for lines like “Hell is on our minds / Hell is in this life / But when it’s done, God takes all.”

(You can hear a beautiful rendition of the 2009 song by Lancaster County’s Jonathan Groff performed at a New York nightclub online at

Going to the theater is one of my great passions in life, so of course there has to be a Broadway showtune in the mix. That’s still up in the air, but Stephen Sondheim’s “Move On” from Sunday in the Park With George is a front-runner. His lyrics say a lot about creativity and life choices. And it would leave family and friends with the message to keep living and creating: “Just keep going / Everything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new / Give us more to see.”

But I’m also so obsessed with “The Sound of Music” that a family favorite, the upbeat “So Long, Farewell,” might just drop Sondheim from the setlist. That would make my family smile and sing “Cuckoo!”

A memorial service, I think, needs a sing-along—especially if I don’t intend for a hymn to be included.

I’ve long thought that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung in unison could really bring a church together. Wherever I am in the Great Afterlife – maybe I’ll talk to Judy Garland! — I’m sure I just want to hear this song again, sung from the heart by the people I care about.

An alternative that also features a “rainbow ending” would be another one of my all-time favorites, “Moon River,” which I’ve adored since the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” sheet music was on our family piano in the 1960’s. Andy Williams soft tones promise we’ll meet around the bend, my Huckleberry friend.

My family has a fondness for having the verses “a time to be born, a time to die” read from the book of Ecclesiastes at memorials. So maybe getting people to sing along to The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” — Pete Seeger’s restatement of the Bible verse — will help keep everyone in a positive mood.

And how do I send my family and friends out into the world after saying goodbye?

I have a few ideas for last minute encores that I think will help you put down your tissues.

I was at the peak of my disco years in college, and I was and still am a disco duck. Sorry friends, but a disco song is the be-all and end-all of my memorial. What better tune than Patrick Hernandez’s up-tempo “Born to Be Alive”? I may have discarded my mortal coil, but nieces, nephews, friends – you were born to be alive and to live on.

Another must-have: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. In interviews, the pop singer-songwriter said she wrote it with her mother in mind — a mother who Lauper didn’t feel was giving enough choices in her life.

I am so grateful to have been raised in a home and to have been raised in a time where I always knew I had many choices – a choice of career, a choice of where to live, a choice of whether or not to get married – that I would like to celebrate this at my last farewell, with Lauper’s anthem.

As I listened to local musicians Bobbi Carmitchell and Ashley McFalls singing the Indigo Girls song “Galileo” as they performed one of their daily Facebook Live concerts in the early months of the pandemic, I realized how much i love this song. His lyrics can lead the listener down many philosophical paths. “How long will it take for my soul to get it right? Can a human ever reach that kind of light?”

That might be just the right tone to end a funeral service. Amen and amen.

If I’m allowed anywhere near the number of years Queen Elizabeth had on this earth, my commemorative list could morph into something else entirely in the future.

But whatever the music is, I hope it will serve as a comfort to those I leave behind – and an opportunity to reflect, toe-tapping and a little smile.

Unscripted is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating writing team.

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