The Surprising Origins of Classic Funeral Songs

Military funeral in Arlington National Cemetary - playing Taps on the bugle

“Taps, Bugle, Army, Military Funeral, Arlington National Cemetery”
(Photo by Beverly)

As we say goodbye to loved ones and friends at a funeral service, often music is played to allow us to send silent prayers, say our farewells, or sit in quiet mediation on a life well lived. Traditional funeral songs have been played for decades to send many on their eternal journey. Some of the most well known funeral songs include “The Lord is My Shepherd,” “Danny Boy,” “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Taps.”

As times change, more modern songs have been introduced, such as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which is perhaps used when those left behind have a certain sense of humor. Even a song like “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash is sometimes played. After all, a funeral is one of the most personal things a human being will ever participate in.

The Story of “Amazing Grace”

The writer and composer of the traditional funeral song “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, was anything but a reflective man. Newton was a sailor in the mid 1700s, with a reputation for being one of the most profane on the ship. The culture of Newton’s sailors was a raunchy one, but Newton succeeded in shocking the crew and captain by inventing even filthier language than that already used. Newton received a punishment of starvation, and later was enslaved on a plantation.

Saved by another ship’s crew, Newton then experienced a near fatal storm on the same ship. He began to ask God for mercy, and eventually became a curate in the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” along with William Cowper, as a hymn for a prayer meeting, not as a funeral song. The lyrics describe Newton’s own advent into salvation:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

“Amazing Grace” by the Original USA Gospel Choir

The Story of “Taps”

The bugle call known as “Taps” is traditionally played at military funerals, but it is also a song often used at flag ceremonies. Also known as “Day is Done,” it is often the last sound of the day at a military encampment. It is the song that symbolizes to soldiers that it is time to lay down their arms, cease fighting, and rest.

It is believed that during the latter part of the 1800s, military funerals received three cannon shots as a tribute to the deceased soldier. At some point, the military adapted the playing of “Taps” instead. Daniel Butterfield is the composer, and the song is written for notes that a bugle can play, since the bugle has a limited musical range.

Different sets of lyrics have graced the song but all say goodnight: “gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the skies, all is well, safely rest; God is nigh.”

“Taps” by the United States Navy Band

The Story of “Danny Boy”

The writer of over 1,500 songs, Fred Weatherly, penned one of the most famous Irish funeral songs, “Danny Boy,” over 100 years ago. He meant for it to be a popular song, not necessarily a funeral song. Because it was introduced immediately before the outbreak of World War I, the message seemed especially poignant as tens of thousands of men marched off to war. The words seemed to hint at what was happening in everyone’s lives.

“Danny Boy” has been sung by hundreds of different musicians. It was one of the songs played at Elvis Presley’s funeral. A haunting, melancholy song, the lyrics include the heartwrenching line:

 “But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an Ave for me.”


“Danny Boy” by The King’s Singers

Traditional funeral songs can make any grieving mourner weep, but they can also help a heart to heal from the loss of a loved one. If you are planning a funeral, consider how these classic funeral songs might help your loved ones grieve.

These videos brought tears to our eyes – what about you? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter.

About Cindy Readnower

Cindy Readnower, MBA, specializes in sales, marketing, and entrepreneurship. An award-winning certified Life Coach, business consultant, and publisher at Skinny Leopard Media, she helps writers produce and promote their books. She is a newspaper columnist, author of "Inherited Secrets," and a blogger.

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  1. Pingback: Military Funeral Honors: “Honoring Those Who Served”

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