When someone dies, it’s a two-edged thing for those left behind: Mourning the loss of the loved one, but also a desire to celebrate their life with other people who cared about them. (We only need to look at the smiles and cheers accompanying the public appearances of the British Royal Family after the recent death of the Queen to see that.)
Nowadays, DJs are often asked to provide music at celebration parties, usually following a formal funeral, and this is especially the case where the person who has died was a big music fan. But it is a gig you have to get “right” – emotions will be high, and literally striking the right note is going to be essential if you’re asked to play a gig like this.
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Witness, for instance, the playlists on the radio in the days following a major public death (again, as I write this, it is the case in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth following the death of the Queen): Depending where you tune in, it is 80s power ballads, slow emotional oldies, or mellow trip hop – but it’s always pensive music, and equally, there is little chance of hearing West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys (“Sometimes, you’re better off dead…”) or any of the other banana skins DJs might trip up on when someone has died. A lot of care has gone into the tone of these musical outlets right now.
And if you feel DJing funerals is somehow distasteful, maybe you should think again: There is nothing wrong with caring about music at a time like this, which of course is the reason why clients book DJs for these parties. If music is a language we think and feel in when times are good, we shouldn’t feel guilty about using music to help celebrate the life of someone with their family and friends when that person dies.
Look at it another way: If you don’t take the gig and then put the care in to get it right, someone else may get it horribly wrong. An example: A good friend of mine died a few years ago. He was a huge fan of music: He and I used to love local indie bands and heavy 90s dance when we were teenagers, and latterly he got into hardcore punk (knowing him, I understood completely why). So I felt quietly angry to hear the music played at his funeral, which didn’t in one single way reflect the person I knew – especially as I’d been asked, along with other friends of his, to contribute ideas for music to use in the service. Music matters, and getting it wrong can hurt.
Read this next: How To Pick Songs For A DJ Set
How To DJ A Funeral Or Life Celebration
So assuming you’ve been asked to play an event following the death of someone (we’re not talking the actual funeral service itself to be clear, more the “celebration of life” part of the funeral, usually in another venue, afterwards), here are a few tips that can help you to do a good job of it:
- It’s a life celebration, not a rave – The mood you’ll be wanting to hit likely won’t be lasers, light shows and dancing till the early hours; it is probably going to be more laid-back, quieter, and lighter; after all, the time of day will probably be earlier than your usual gigs, and people ultimately are likely to want to hear the music that reminds them of their loved one, but also get the chance to talk and reminisce with each other. Plus, as with all such occasions, happy or sad, it is probably the first time many of these people have seen each other for quite a while, meaning socialising tends to trump dancing
- …but don’t think you have to play all slow songs – Remember the “two-edged” thing, in that this is a celebration as much as a sad time. People can and will grieve fully later; right now they’re all together, and in the mood to reminisce and deal with the emotions in a social way. Play a mix of slow, mid-tempo and poppier songs
- Vet every single song you play carefully – You’ll probably want clean versions and you’ll definitely want to check there aren’t any diabolical coincidences or otherwise in the lyrics that you really want to avoid. True story: A song was suggested to be played at a gathering for someone I knew who had sadly committed suicide, because it was one of his favourite songs. The lyrics included the lines, “I suddenly knew that my life meant nothing at all.” Imagine if that had been played?
- Don’t ever, ever try to educate the crowd – This is NOT in any way about you, hopefully that is obvious, but this is no time to show off your DJing skills or teach them about the new genre you discovered last week. This is about memories, and about music that jogs those memories. Old music. Popular music. Universal music. Save the showing off for any other gig but this one…
- Consider keeping mic use to a minimum – Ever been at a funeral where the person running things clearly didn’t know the deceased, and it showed? Unless you were close to the person who’s died, let people tell stories and share anecdotes among themselves, rather than trying to do it for them, even if you are told things that you feel you should maybe be sharing with the crowd. Unless reading out recollections is part of what you’ve been booked for, concentrate on playing the music
- Be wary of playing only the styles the deceased loved – A disco fan dies, or a heavy metal fan, or a progressive rock fan, or a classical music lover. Do you play exclusively disco, heavy metal, progressive rock or classical music at their celebration? No! This is all about them, but it is also not about them – it’s about the people who are there, and helping them to communally remember and celebrate their loved one, whoever they are and whatever they are into
- Ask the audience what they want to hear – Not literally on the mic at the event, but beforehand. It’s a great idea to speak with as many of them as possible, in a WhatsApp group, by email, whatever, and simply ask, “I’m DJing the life celebration party, and would love to know what songs remind you of [the person], songs you know they liked to dance to, songs that meant something to you both.” You’re not going to play all of these songs (as DJs, we should always apply a filter to song suggestions), but you can incorporate as many as you feel appropriate, which will personalise the whole event hugely
- Be extra specially kind to people – Mobile and event DJs should always make allowances for the clients they are booked by and for, but especially in situations where emotions are running high, you have to put yourself in the shoes of those who you’re playing to. If you are treated badly in any way by anyone, it is almost certainly not going to be about you. And while showing empathy can sometimes be hard, never is it more needed than in this kind of situation
- End on a happy song – Again, through some misplaced notion that we need to show respect, we may feel that playing something sad to end off with is going to be appropriate, but it rarely is. Something happy makes far more sense (and no digging out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, either – big cliched funeral songs, if ever played, will have been played at the funeral itself, often as a request from the deceased before they died). Find something everyone knows, that is upbeat and memorable
Taking it further with a “remembrance playlist”
Our team member Lauren, who lost her brother recently, did something really cool, that you could also do as well as DJing an event – especially if you were a personal friend or family member of the person who died, and so knew them and their tastes well.
Lauren says: “I made a big Spotify playlist of songs for people who want to remember my brother through music, that they can listen to at any time. It’s a mix of songs I know he loved, with songs I think he’d like, and music that other people suggested that remind them of him. It’s a playlist that my sister listens to almost every day, and she’s grateful that I captured him in music form.”
It’s a lovely idea – and if you were to organise this before such an event, it could also of course form the basis of the actual set you play, or at least, heavily inform it.
As we saw in the link in the intro, there are DJs who have made a name for themselves doing this kind of thing; while we probably wouldn’t suggest specialising in this way, you equally shouldn’t shy away from this kind of event.
You’ll be helping people to come to terms with the loss of someone they loved, making new memories they can cherish, and proving that music is a healer in itself – something we already know as DJs. And actually, maybe in such circumstances our services are needed more than ever.
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