3 deaths… and music

How are you?

We’re fine here, although it’s been a sad week, with the news of three deaths, one a generation older, one around my age, and one a generation younger. None of them were family, but all were intertwined in the community of my family. I’m going to be intentionally vague about their identities and my relationships with each of them, because I’m not the one to tell their stories. In fact, I am a very minor part of each their stories. And yet, I can’t write about anything else right now because these deaths have been consuming a lot of my mental energy.

The two older deaths didn’t come as much surprise, as they had both been ill, and yet — it’s always still surprising, isn’t it? As for the young person, I didn’t know him personally, although I am acquainted with his parents and Austin knew a younger sibling from camp.

I don’t imagine that I have anything new to add to humankind’s thoughts on death, but I’ve been thinking about how these lives have been celebrated and how they will be memorialized.


The woman our age? She had a big fiftieth birthday party a few years back. I don’t remember if she had been diagnosed with cancer at that point. What I do remember is that she rented out a hall big enough to do a Virginia reel (video example here). It was something she had done when she was younger and she loved it and her birthday wish was to get enough people together to do a proper Virginia reel.

What a great day that was! I had no idea what I was doing, but someone ordered us around and suddenly a random mass of bodies became an intricate dance with pairings, re-pairings, arches to duck through, and a lot of joy and laughs.

Is there a takeaway from that event? Maybe that strangers become friends quickly when they are all a bit out of their comfort zones and work together to make something as simple (or as hard) as a dance.

This was certainly an influence on how we celebrated a 50th birthday in our house. “Remember that dance?” we asked ourselves as we made plans. “Remember how fun it is to dance?”

And then came the realization that we don’t have to wait for a big event to dance. A friend from Newton Family Singers had the idea to get the group together, not to sing or play music, but to square dance! What a generous and wonderful gift to her friends. Turns out I’m no better at the Virginia Reel for having done it before, and it’s also no less fun.


The woman a generation older than us? Her husband told us that it was a quick decline. Her memory and mind went, and her body soon after. Towards the end, she had trouble recognizing people. At the very end, her husband said, she knew him enough to give him a kiss. And then she didn’t know even that much and passed away soon thereafter.

We asked about a funeral. Her husband and family had already been planning an event in the winter, a gathering for their fiftieth anniversary, so it makes sense to keep those dates as a chance to reflect and remember their wife, mother, grandmother, friend.

Fifty years. To know someone for that long, and then for that relationship, that connection, to be the last thread of memory before passing on… How amazing to have that.

The other thing her husband said would still affect her, even after she didn’t recognize most people, was music. They were, and are, patrons of classical music and their friends came and played for her. Like her relationship with her husband, her love of music was buried deep and unaffected by the decline of her mind.

The young man who died had a memorial service this past weekend. His mother wrote to the guests that her son hated the maudlin funerals he had been to in his short life and so the family planned to celebrate his life, rather than mourn his loss. “Come in your personal best style,” was the dress code.

You know how we all say this? “I don’t want a boring old funeral — why can’t it be a party?”

Well, it’s hard. “Party” is a lot of live up to. “Not boring” is perhaps a more attainable goal.

A year ago, the Newton Family Singers, an intergenerational family chorus, did a program of recent pop songs. We were told that the young man enjoyed our concert very much and we were asked to contribute some music to the service. On short notice, a couple of dozen members of the chorus and all of the band who were in town showed up for a quick rehearsal to refresh our memories, and then the afternoon performance.

The family that suffered this tragedy is quite musical and have lots of talented friends. A beautiful solo jazz guitarist welcomed a huge crowd of well wishers as they took their seats. A bagpiper drew the latecomers into the church. An aunt led the crowd in an a capella singalong of a song she had written. And then members of the family and community came up and spoke.

It’s pretty amazing to learn so much about someone with just a few anecdotes. But as they contrasted and overlapped and reinforced one another, I really felt like I got to know this young man, this child. Kudos to the family for knowing who to ask to speak, and for the speakers for finding the right words to say.

As for us, the Newton Family Singers, we performed one song early, “We Are Here,” by Alicia Keys. “We are here for all of us,” we sang, and it seemed appropriate for the gathering, as people in the pews leaned against one another, and held hands, and mouthed the words or sang along.

At the end of the service, we sang two more songs: “Brave” by Sara Bareilles and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. As I told someone later, I think it went over quite well, gauging by the faces of the crowd. That said, it was hard, especially in rehearsal, to keep it together while hearing the lyrical exhortation of “Brave”:

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly, I want to see you be brave

From the stories told, it sounded like this boy was not one to be afraid to speak his mind to his family, to his head of school, or to his friends. What struck me was the grammar of the lyrics: the imperative tense that presumes a future — that was tough for me to hear.

And then “Happy” — my kids say it’s a boring song because they’ve heard and sung it so many times. But playing those surprisingly jazzy chords of the chorus (Dbmaj9! Cm11!) at the memorial service of a teenager imbued it with a surprising richness. And as I mentioned, I think the crowd needed it, some of them clapping and moving to the music as they wandered out of the church, a little bit of pop music that gave them a chance to take a deep breath and face the rest of their lives.

Is that too much? Am I reading too much into the effects of music? Maybe I should just speak for myself.

Well, for myself, there was one moment when I had to catch my sobs during the memorial. A group of family friends assembled a band to play “Ring of Fire,” a favorite of the deceased. Great players and a great singer for a great song. They played the first verse and then the lead singer invited the crowd to sing along,

“I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire,” we sang. “I went down down down, and the flames went higher. And it burns…” — and then I lost it.

It had nothing to do with the lyrics this time. It was the sound. The sound of seven hundred or more people, who all knew the song, having found the right key, knowing that everyone else was singing and not listening to them, freeing them up to sing out, to do their best Johnny Cash, and then hitting that lower, more resonant note on “burns” with that big, open, chesty vowel sound that vibrated through every rib cage, individual voices joined into one voice, a sound that was more powerful than the giant pipe organ that surrounded us, a sound that filled the church, the sound of the collective breath of a community. That was the most emotional moment of the afternoon for me.

After the ceremony, people gathered in front of the church and I was happy to see so many people I knew. Someone driving by might have thought we were having a party.


So that’s what’s going on with me. Sing when you get a chance. Dance. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. That’s my plan.

What song do you want people to remember you by?


The contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter in September. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

2 thoughts on “3 deaths… and music

  1. I get teary eyed at any large gather of people singing. Most frequently it’s a national anthem, doesn’t even matter what anthem. Doesn’t even have to be real. Could be the spontaneous singing of La Marseilles in Casablanca. As you said, just something about people sharing music with their voices. Condolences to all who lost loved ones.


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