5 Funeral Tribute Performances You Can Lay On Your Altar

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

Even the worst song can take on gravitas and grandeur when sung in tribute to the dead. Funeral tributes are an opportunity to take the first look backward; to start the retrospective of a life and enshrine their work. Sometimes this means performing the work of the deceased, and sometimes it’s music about the one who has passed. In both cases, there are stunning examples that we can still enjoy today, if we know how to find them.

When Shane MacGowan died in November 2023, many people spoke fondly of the drunk and disorderly genius who had fronted the Pogues. Only natural that someone would sing his seasonal sauced standard “Fairytale of New York.” In an utterly packed Catholic church in Nenagh, Ireland, Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill bawled it out: homophobic slurs, gendered insults and all. The moving performance took place before a packed church in Nenagh, a country town in Ireland. Mourners wailed and danced in the aisles, and it’s hard to imagine a tribute MacGowan would have enjoyed more.

“Candle in the Wind” was originally written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin in 1973, eleven years late as a lament for the long-gone Marilyn Monroe. However, a melancholy threnody can always find a home at a new funeral. At Farm Aid IV in 1990, John trotted it out again in its shiny black shoes, dedicating it to Ryan White who had just died of complications of AIDS at the age of 18. However, the song reached its zenith in 1997, with rewritten lyrics to commemorate the death of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, first wife to the current English King Charles III. Performed at the state funeral, it was also a #1 hit for the singer-songwriter, who had been a friend of the lost princess.

Though you might know it best as a plea to end animal cruelty, “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan was originally written in tribute to Jonathan Melvoin, sometime keyboardist for the Smashing Pumpkins who died of a heroin overdose in 1996. The Smashing Pumpkins had been on tour, at the very height of their fame and fresh off a sold-out engagement at Madison Square Garden when news of Melvoin’s death broke. Canadian singer-songwriter McLachlan, who had been friends with the deceased, composed the mordant piano ballad in his honor. Melvoin 34, and “Angel” was a top ten hit despite its sweet madness and its glorious sadness. Or perhaps because of them. 

Aretha Franklin passed in 2018, and had a talent of the magnitude that no other one person could match. Instead, other singers came together like Voltron to make tribute to the multifaceted and magnetic artist she was. This included her songs sung by Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. The young Ariana Grande sang “Natural Woman,” carrying a little flame off of Aretha’s torch for the next generation. Though many popular fans might not know it, Aretha was also a well-known Christian gospel singer, and the luminaries of that scene were present as well, offering tribute for the tribute the late great Franklin had given her god.   

The most attended funeral of all time was given for Michael Jackson in 2009 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. An entertainer like no other, Jackson both began his career young and died young, leaving behind an astonishing catalog of work, as well as a complicated personal legacy. The oddly moving thing about Jackson’s funeral lies in the types of music that made him globally famous: Though he was primarily a singer of dance and pop music, he also produced unforgivably schmaltzy ballads with the emotional texture of processed cheese.

These, of course, are prominent among the tributes performed at his mega-funeral, with Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, and Usher attempting to memorialize the man in the mirror. Surprisingly, Jennifer Hudson’s cover of “Will You Be There,” a song written for the feel-good killer whale movie for children, Free Willy is perhaps the most moving of all. An achingly simple melody rendered into a sing-along kidz bop about hoping to not be abandoned becomes something altogether transcendent, given the context of grief.