[Ed. note: This is the 30th in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
Death is not an easy topic for many people to discuss. Whether it's facing the loss of a parent, spouse, friend, or even confronting our own mortality, it can be an uncomfortable subject. But it's a reality all of us must face at some point in our lives, whether we're ready for it or not. Bono, for instance, had the unenviable task of coping with the sudden death of his mother at the tender age of 14. More than a quarter-century later, he had to juggle his father's failing health while maintaining his position as the frontman of the world's biggest band. As several U2 songs demonstrate, his experience with funerals has played a major part in shaping the person, lyricist and musician he has become.
Admittedly, I don't have much experience with funerals, and that's what made this assignment much tougher than I had originally anticipated. I began by thinking about which of my favorite U2 songs I would want played at my funeral. However, many of them don't convey a message suitable for what is typically a somber and pensive occasion. Furthermore, it was very strange to think of my own funeral at this stage of my life. What kind of overall tone would I want my funeral to take on: Somber or celebratory? Subdued or boisterous? Conservative or ornate? For the music, questions of mood, volume, tempo, lyrics, audience, venue, and general propriety surfaced.
So, for this list, I tried to imagine U2 songs that would be appropriate regardless of who had died or who attends the ceremonies. Conspicuously absent from this list are the songs "Tomorrow" and "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," two songs that are tied directly to the funerals of Bono's parents. While those two songs would be fitting at some funerals, they paint very specific pictures because Bono wrote them about his own personal funeral experiences. My goal was to keep this list as universal as possible. Included here are seven songs that I think could be used at a wide range of funerals.
Ironically, I can think of few circumstances that help (or even force) people to contemplate and sometimes even re-evaluate their own lives -- past, present and future -- more than a funeral. No matter how prepared people claim to be, the finality and shock associated with the dying of a loved one often are sobering realizations. However, as the lyrics to "40" proclaim, as much as funerals symbolize endings, they can also serve as new beginnings: "I will sing, sing a new song." Frequently accompanying this re-evaluation is a sense of trepidation. In addition to grief, feelings of fear and uncertainty are quite common among the funeral attendees, particularly for the people closest to the person who died. Fortunately, "40" is also a song about trust, hope and faith. It describes being lifted from despair and sorrow ("He brought me up out of the pit / Out of the miry clay") and regaining the confidence to live a happy, healthy life ("He set my feet upon a rock / And made my footsteps firm").
"A Sort Of Homecoming"
First, the title is as appropriate as any in U2's catalogue for a funeral song. Death is an ending, but a funeral can represent the beginning of the departed's journey to the afterlife, a place or state many people think of as "home." "A Sort Of Homecoming" is a first-person account of a long journey over many obstacles and through many hardships.
The vast sonic landscape the band creates is perhaps symbolic of what awaits the dead after the funeral. A long life of hardship and struggle ("Through the sleet and driving snow / Across the fields of mourning") is finally rewarded with a sense of relief and belonging ("No don't weep for tonight, at last / I am coming home").
"Beautiful Day" was the first single from All That You Can't Leave Behind, and it's doubtless one of the band's best songs. But for me, "Walk On" was the track that really convinced me that the band had returned to its rock roots and was ready to take back the unofficial title of "Biggest Band in the World." Little did I know then that the song would carry so many meanings. Originally written as a song of defiance and principle, "Walk On" also is a song that can be used as a "keep-your-head-up-and-things-will-get-easier" anthem for those who are particularly grief-stricken: "And I know it aches / And your heart, it breaks / You can only take so much / Walk on." Additionally, it's as much a song for those who have died as it is for the living, as some of the lyrics emphasize letting go ("You've got to leave it behind") as well as acceptance ("Home, I can't say where it is, but I know I'm going home"), and assurance ("And love is not the easy thing / The only baggage you can bring / It's all that you can't leave behind").
This is one of my all-time favorite U2 songs, in part because it can be interpreted on multiple levels. It's a song sung to the living on behalf of the dead: "I want you to know / That you don't need me any more." It's also a song sung by the living as a tribute to those who have died: "I want you to know / You don't need anyone or anything at all." And it's a song for everyone involved in the funeral: "I know that this is not goodbye." I also love "Kite" because of the raw emotional power behind the vocals. Scattered throughout U2's albums are several keystone singing moments for Bono. The coda of one of the band's greatest love songs, "All I Want Is You," is characterized by Bono yelling out "You! All I want is ...You!" "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" contains perhaps the band's most cathartic moment, when Bono hits and sustains a high A at the end of the line "Can you hear me when I sing?" And, of course, the "Oh oh oh" explosion in "With Or Without You" is one of the most famous climaxes in all of popular music. In "Kite," the high G-sharp Bono sings in the line "I'm a man, I'm not a child" is one of U2's biggest emotional releases, something I'm sure funeral attendees could appreciate in such emotionally trying times.
Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion states, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." While the instruments create a soft, soothing texture, the lyrics remind us of Newton's Law as it relates to human emotion. There is life after tragedy, and it can be pretty good. "What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark no longer stings / Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things."
Funerals are usually somber, heavy occasions. The emotional weight of someone passing away cannot be overstated, and because of that, I figured there should be at least one song that was the complete opposite of that. There are no vocals in "Bass Trap," so it makes this list for its all-instrumental texture that espouses a delicate, gossamer-like sound. The soothing guitar timbre gives an otherworldly sensation. I feel like a feather being blown by a gentle breeze when listening to this song. I can also envision this track as the background of a slideshow or video tribute to the person who died, with many shots of him/her smiling, laughing and enjoying life. This is what I imagine part of heaven sounds like: ethereal and weightless.
Texturally, it's perhaps the simplest song in U2‘s extensive catalogue, so I won't take up much space writing about its appropriateness for a funeral. Simply put, it's a lullaby to those who have passed away ("Sleep, sleep tonight"), it's a hopeful song of goodbye ("And may your dreams be realized"), and it's a song of acceptance ("So let it rain...So let it be"). It's the perfect song for this list.
© @U2/Endrinal, 2011.