Funeral hymns may seem antiquated to some, but when choosing music for a funeral, contemporary compositions don’t always feel appropriate. That's why for the past few centuries hymns have been a mainstay; providing comfort, reassurance, and evoking a shared emotion that many expect from a funeral. Here are ten of the most popular hymns used to say goodbye to loved ones and some of the history behind them.
1. Abide With Me
You may not have heard this one before but it is without a doubt the most highly ranked funeral hymn, showing up on every list. Written by Scotsman, Henry Francis Lyte, as he was dying from tuberculosis, the titular words actually were those of a dying friend decades earlier. The hymn was published in 1847 and sung for the first time at Lyte’s own funeral. Later the song was put to the hauntingly beautiful tune, "Eventide" by the English organist William Henry Monk. Even in the darkness in decay, this song reminds us that the Lord never changes and even as we step from this life into the next, He is with us.
2. It is Well With My Soul
The lyrics were written by Horatio Gates Spafford after losing everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the deaths of all five of his children at different times. The soft, emotional melody was then added to the heart provoking words by Philip Bliss and the song was published in 1876. It can be hard to imagine having peace in the midst of sorrow and grief, but for those that have faith, the hymn describes that exact emotional state.
3. Blessed Assurance
The tiniest bit more up-tempo, this hymn lends a celebratory air to the funeral of one who was looking forward to entering their eternal home. Composed in 1873 by Phoebe Knapp, the pianist then asked a friend, blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby, to lyricize the music. The lyrics evoke Crosby’s faith journey which had been greatly impacted by the feelings expressed by Paul in Philippians 1:21, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." What assurance is had by those who know the glory that awaits.
4. The Old Rugged Cross
Bringing the thoughts of the grieving to the original promise made by Jesus on the cross, this almost melancholy tune cannot fail to remind us of the sacrifice made on our behalf. It was written by a Methodist song leader and the son of an Ohio Coal Miner, George Bennard, in 1912. Bennard was studying the deeper meaning of the cross in God’s plan of redemption when the song began to form for him, but it took many months for its completion. It may be the perfect funeral hymn for those struggling with understanding God’s will in the midst of tragedy.
5. In The Sweet By and By
Often played with a folk or bluegrass flair, this simple uplifting hymn was published in 1868 with lyrics by S. Fillmore Bennett and music by Joseph P. Webster. The song actually came out of a desire by Bennett to help his composer friend out of the depression and melancholy he so often struggled with. From the moment the words first struck Bennett to the time they were singing the fully composed hymn together was reportedly not more than 30 minutes. Whatever happens today, this funeral hymn reminds us that we will all meet again “on that beautiful shore.”
6. Great is Thy Faithfulness
One of the most well-known, as well as the most modern hymns on our list, it was first a poem written by Thomas Chisholm. The writer then sent it to his friend in Kansas, William M. Runyan who set the words based on Lamentations 3:23, “His mercies never come to an end. . .Great is your faithfulness” to music. In 1923 it was published and quickly spread to become the worldwide declaration of God’s character we all know today, offering strength for today's trials and hope for tomorrow.
7. When We all Get To Heaven
This more up-tempo, gospel hymn was composed by Emily D. Wilson and written by one-time school teacher, Eliza Hewitt, in 1898. Hewitt had suffered a severe back injury years before that left her bedridden for months and with chronic pain the rest of her life. Pouring herself into the presence of the Lord and a study of literature led to writing hymns and poetry, including this beloved celebration of the day we all enter into Heaven. After all, for those who believe, a funeral can be a time of rejoicing.
8. Amazing Grace
Undoubtedly the most famous hymn on this list. Published as a poem in 1779, the familiar words were written by the English poet and slave trader-turned-abolitionist, John Newton. However, it wasn’t until 1835, that American composer William Walker set the lyrics to the music most are familiar with today. The majority of people have heard the main verse of the hymn as well as the resoundingly sweet melody, but there is so much richness in the following verses. Especially poignant at a funeral is the line declaring that it is grace which leads us home, and the last verse about the eternity we will have singing God’s praise in Heaven.
9. ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus
Another truly sweet music selection. The slow and uplifting music was written by William J. Kirkpatrick with the intimately personal lyrics by Louisa M. R. Stead. She wrote the words in 1882 after dealing with the loss of her husband and a subsequent move to South Africa to work as a missionary. This hymn reminds us that Jesus is not only our Savior, but a precious friend who walks with us through every stage of life and beyond.
10. My Hope is Built On (On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand)
This powerful and moving hymn was written by London cabinet maker, Edward Mote at the age of 55, when struck with the power of his faith while on his way to work. It was then published in 1834 and has since been an anthem of declaration around the world. The perfect funeral hymn to reaffirm that we have nothing to fear of death or the beyond because our faith has been proven and Jesus’ return has already been foretold.
So, if a classic hymn is the direction you wish to go to honor your loved one, here are some things to think about. Many churches and funeral homes still provide hymnals, meaning there is likely not a need to include the lyrics in your funeral program. However, if they do not, or if you happen to choose a funeral hymn that is not included in their hymn book, a longer program will be necessary. Unlike other musical selections, hymns are typically sung together by the congregation so the lyrics you choose will need to be visible for your guests. Typically, it is easiest to simply include them in the program, however, you can always choose to use a slideshow instead, if you prefer to keep your program short. We hope this list helped you during this difficult decision-making process and maybe, helped you to feel some assurance and peace as well.
I Need Thee
I’ll Fly Away
How Great Thou Art
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms