Singing at her grandmother's funeral inspired Penelope Shipley to start a business and do the same for other people's families. “The idea has always been to help people," she says.
Penelope Shipley and Briony Rawle founded London Funeral Singers. Photo courtesy of subjects
Last January in Beverley Hills, Meryl Streep sang “Happy Days Are Here Again” at the funeral service for actors Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It was a duet, sung for a small congregation alongside Fisher’s daughter and Reynold’s granddaughter, Billie Lourd. When it comes to a final send-off, you can’t do much better than Meryl Streep—but if that proves tricky, the surprising boom in professional funeral singers means that there are plenty who can step up to the plate.
Around the same time of Fisher and Reynold’s service last year, British singers Penelope Shipley and Briony Rawle were seeing serious growth in their business, London Funeral Singers. In the past year, their business has soared 250 percent, reflecting a growing trend of live music at funerals.
When they started, they were just two actors looking to make some money on the side; now they’re full-time in the funeral music biz. Shipley, a singer, composer and musical director, and Rawle, a lauded professional singer, met doing theatre in 2012. From great sadness came a rather lovely little business idea.
“I sang at my grandmother’s funeral—her favourite song, ‘A Nightingale Sings in Berkeley Square.’ We were really close and I just thought, if I can get through that performance, maybe I can sing for other people,” Shipley says. “The idea has always been to help people. More and more, people want to treat the funeral as an event to remember and to treasure, and as a celebration of life.
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“We’ve noticed that having live music there can be cathartic. Often people are so busy arranging the funeral, they keep this stiff upper lip, right up until the music starts and then they give themselves permission to feel. Often, by the third verse, they’ve joined in.”
At first, it was just Shipley and Rawle. Now they employ nearly a predominantly female group of 90 singers and are one of the biggest companies in the UK. They’ve organized performances for nearly 200 funerals and supply singers across many different genres (even Bulgarian folk), and cover almost a ten-mile radius in and around London. Each service is bespoke, but prices begin at £190 (around $264) for one singer to lead the congregation in two hymns.
Business is good. The demand for live music at funerals is growing, possibly inspired by Ms Streep’s performance or perhaps even before her, Elton John’s legendary performance at Princess Diana’s funeral. As a 2017 BBC Radio Four documentary, The Funeral Singer put it: “Today, a simple CD is not enough for an increasing number of mourners. Only a live singer will do to mark the passing of their loved ones. Funeral singer websites and booking agencies—often a spin-off from wedding singer providers—are proliferating.”
It seems to be partly to do with our desire to bring Hollywood glamor into our lives—what’s good for Carrie and Diana is good for my loved one—and partly to do with a slackening of social protocol at funerals. Shipley says around 80 percent of her bookings are religious, rather than atheist, but that a new generation of funeral organizers and attendees are rejecting traditional hymns for live renditions of their favourite songs.
“Google says the most popular funeral song is ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra but we haven’t had a single request for that yet. We get a lot of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria.’ The most popular hymns are ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ Otherwise, it’s unique, it’s just people with the lovely idea to sing the favourite songs of the person who died.”
Just last week, Shipley worked with a woman who had lost her mom. Her mom’s name had been Irene, so the grieving daughter rewrote the words to a 1950s song called “Goodnight Irene.” Shipley arranged the music and they did an acoustic version. More and more people are engaging the services of companies like London Funeral Singers because it seems a fitting tribute to someone they loved; perhaps they imagine them smiling at the song choice.
“Singing in a congregation at church is strangely exposing,” Shipley says. “You can’t hear the person next to you above your own voice and often people are put off by that. We are booked so that there’s reliable sound at these events, which people are starting to see more as a rite of passage than a strict religious ceremony. And we work to get the right song and the right singer for the right funeral.”
Each singer arrives extremely early for the gig, stays for the duration of the service, listens dutifully to the eulogy, and leaves promptly afterwards. The day we speak, Shipley has a singer at an event two and a half hours early because there’s a polar vortex in London and most roads are covered in a thick blanket of snow (“weather is our number one nightmare,” she says). Does singing for families on the days they lower their loved ones six feet into the ground extracts an emotional toll?
“It is difficult, yeah,” Shipley says. “More often than not, you come out wishing you’d known the person who died because you’ve just heard all the most wonderful things about them. You have to be wary of how emotionally involved you get when you’re listening to the eulogy because whatever sadness you feel belongs to the family, it is their sadness. You’re there to help them, it’s not about you.”
The hardest day for Shipley so far has been singing at the funeral of a stillborn baby. “The parents were holding together so beautifully and we really struggled. We sang ‘Bright Eyes’ and as we started, a single tear fell down the mother’s face and we knew she was finally able to release the emotion she needed to. And that’s what funerals are there for, that’s what we are there for. I know it sounds corny, but it’s a privilege to be there for these moments and for these people.”