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10 Poignant Celebration of Life Songs

I grew up in the "classic rock" era, but I love music of every genre. I love sharing my old favorites while still discovering new artists.

Celebration of Life Music

These are songs that celebrate life. Songs about looking back on a life well-lived. Some are new, some are old. Some are cheerful, some melancholy. I think each of these songs is very special.

My husband inspired me to create this list when he said of a particular song, "I want this played at my funeral."

It was not said in a sad or morbid way, it was just a song that he loved, and a song that celebrated life. What song would express how you want people to feel about you after you are gone?

celebration of life

Songs I'd Want Played at My Funeral or Wake

  1. "Leon Russel"—A Song for You
  2. "Warren Zevon"—Keep Me in Your Heart
  3. "Jerry Jeff Walker"—Wheel
  4. "Paul Thorn"—Things Left Undone
  5. "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)"—Green Day
  6. "Jim Croce"—Time in a Bottle
  7. "Grateful Dead"—Ripple
  8. "Blood Sweat & Tears"—And When I Die
  9. "Delbert McClinton"—Real Good Time
  10. "Steve Goodman"—A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request

1. Leon Russel—"A Song for You"

A Song for You was written and recorded by Leon Russell on his first solo album Leon Russell, which was released in 1970. It has been recorded by many other musicians, including Andy Williams and Ray Charles.

It's always been a beautiful song. Since his passing on November 13, 2016 it's part of a wonderful body of work that he left behind, and a fitting tribute to his life and his music.

It's a love song, but it's also a song about looking back at your life.

"And when my life is over,

Remember when we were together,

We were alone and

I was singing this song to you"

— Leon Russel

2. Warren Zevon—"Keep Me in Your Heart"

This song is especially poignant because Warren Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma In late August of 2002. Given only a few months to live, he spent his final days on one last album, The Wind.

He was very public with his diagnosis. On October 30, 2002, he appeared on Late Show with David Letterman as the only guest for the hour. Zevon had been a frequent guest and substitute bandleader on the show. The band played "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" as his introduction. He performed several songs and talked openly about his illness.

Warren Zevon died on September 7, 2003, at the age of 56. He’d lived beyond what was expected, and was alive to see the release of that final album.

The Wind was certified gold by the RIAA in December 2003 and the album received five posthumous Grammy nominations. It went on to win in two categories. They were the only Grammys of Zevon's long career.

"When you get up in the mornin'

And you see that crazy sun,

Keep me in your heart for a while"

— Warren Zevon

3. Jerry Jeff Walker—"Wheel"

This is probably one of the lesser-known songs on my list, but it’s one I fell in love with years ago. In fact, it is the song that inspired this list. A long time ago, my husband told me he wants this song played at his funeral.

Jerry Jeff Walker is an American "Outlaw" country music singer and songwriter. He earned his fame and fortune by writing the often covered song "Mr. Bojangles."

This song, “Wheel,” first appeared on his album ¡Viva Terlingua! It was recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band in 1973.

I love the imagery of “the wheel that kept spinnin’ round.”

The tractor pitched him into a ditch and

Left a dusty sound

Of the wheel that kept spinnin' round

— Jerry Jeff Walker

4. Paul Thorn—"Things Left Undone"

If you haven't have heard of Paul Thorn, he is a Southern Rock, Country, Americana, and Blues singer-songwriter. Paul Thorn is a man who has a way with words. He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, the same town as Elvis.

Self-produced by choice, he has released 15 albums. "Things Left Undone" is from the Album Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, released August 13, 2002.

The song is about looking back at your life. When you face the end, what will you remember?

"Will you remember

The trophies you've won,

Or will you look back on

The things left undone?"

— Paul Thorn

5." Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)"—Green Day

This song is not really about dying. It was written about the end of a relationship. "Good Riddance," not many people would say that about life.

Billie Joe Armstrong wrote "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." It was released on Green Day's 5th album Nimrod in 1997. Green Day is a punk band. This mellow acoustic sound and these contemplative lyrics are not typical of their music.

The song is popular as graduation music, but to me it sounds like an end of life song. There was an episode of the TV medical drama ER, where it was sung at the funeral of a young boy.

It was a song that he had loved, and listened to often during his illness. The nurse who cared for him (Jeanie Boulet, played by Gloria Reuben) was scheduled to sing a more traditional funeral song, but spontaneously decided to sing his favorite song instead. It seemed very fitting.

"It's something unpredictable,

But in the end is right,

I hope you had the time of your life."

— Billie Joe Armstrong

6. Jim Croce—"Time in a Bottle"

When Jim Croce wrote these lyrics in 1970, he had no way of knowing how true they were for him personally. Life must have seemed pretty good. His wife was pregnant with their first child, and in 1972 he released two albums, You Don't Mess Around with Jim and Life and Times. He had a #1 hit song with "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."

When Croce died in a plane crash in 1973, the lyrics of his song, "Time in a Bottle," took on greater meaning. It got a lot of airplay on the radio, and was soon released as a single. It became his second, and last #1 hit song.

"There never seems to be enough time

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them."

7. Grateful Dead—"Ripple"

Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to “Ripple,” Jerry Garcia wrote the music. It was on the Grateful Dead’s album American Beauty released on November 1, 1970.

The mysterious lyrics seem wise and serene, with a touch of sadness. The song pays homage to both Christianity and Buddhism. The lines about cups, empty and full, recall the 23rd Psalm. The haiku chorus stands out, because it departs from the rhyme pattern of the verses.

"Reach out your hand if your cup be empty

If your cup is full may it be again

Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of men"

— Grateful Dead

8. Blood Sweat & Tears—"And When I Die"

I have always loved the song “And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Actually, I just found out that the song was written by a woman named Laura Nyro, who recorded it herself in 1967.

Peter, Paul and Mary recorded the song too, but I think most people who know the song are like me, and remember the Blood, Sweat and Tears version.

I love the positive take on dying in the song.

If you watch the video below, it is a live version with an awesome tuba solo (how often do you hear that?) The tuba section is kind of long though, but hang in there, the end is worth it.

"I swear their ain't no heaven and I pray their ain't no hell, but I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell."

— Blood Sweat and Tears

9. Delbert McClinton—"Real Good Time"

Born in Lubbock in 1940, and raised in Fort Worth, Delbert McClinton is a master of Texas Blues. He is a singer, songwriter and harmonica player who is equally comfortable with country, blues and rock and roll.

This upbeat little song is off his Cost of Living album, released in December of 2008. It would be nice to be able to leave life with this kind of attitude.

Well, I love this life but it's doing me in

Just in case I don't ever see you again

I had a real good time

— Delbert McClinton

10. Steve Goodman—"A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request"

Steve Goodman was an American folk-singer and songwriter from Chicago Illinois. His big break came when he stopped Arlo Guthrie outside of a nightclub and asked him to listen to one of his songs. The song was “City of New Orleans,” which Guthrie went on to record. It is Goodman's best-known song.

Goodman died from leukemia on September 20, 1984 at the age of 36. He was diagnosed with the disease while he was in college. Living on borrowed time, he packed a lifetime into those remaining years that he had, marrying, fathering children, touring, playing music and writing songs. I can't help but wonder what he might be doing today if he were still here. He was a man of short stature, but with a big heart and big talent.

Goodman was a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs. "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request” is a humorous song he wrote for them. Another song of his, "Go, Cubs, Go," is played at Wrigley Field after Cubs wins. It was chosen over "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request,” which was considered too depressing.

This song had a resurgence in popularity after the Cubs won the World Series on November 2, 2016.

"Give me a doubleheader funeral

In Wrigley Field

On some sunny weekend day,

No lights.

Have the organ play the National Anthem,

And then a little 'Na Na Na Na,

Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye'"

— Steve Goodman

© 2016 Sherry Hewins


Laurie T on September 19, 2019:

For a Dancer by Jackson Browne is a good one.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on December 21, 2016:

bravewarrior - I'm glad you enjoy Paul Thorn. He's a favorite of mine.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 20, 2016:

What a varied blend of genres! I love the lineup. I actually saw Leon Russell perform "A Song For You" when my son was a toddler. I love his sound.

Some of these artists are unknown to me, one of whom is Paul Thorn. He's definitely someone I'd listen to.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on December 11, 2016:

Interesting. I wonder if I can guess which two. Let's see... Leon Russel and Blood Sweat and Tears?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 11, 2016:

Oddly I only knew two of these. I'm either out of touch with certain genres of music or I don't listen to songs about dying. LOL Not sure which is true, but thanks for the list.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on December 10, 2016:

Thanks Mills P - I tried to include some familiar ones, and some not so obvious ones that people wouldn't normally think of.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on December 10, 2016:

I'm glad you included Goodman and Zevon and Croce. The Beatles song In My Life gets played some funerals these days. A few years ago, Paul McCartney also wrote The End Of The End, which is a poignant celebration of a man's life, and the way he wants to be remembered. You have a fine list here.

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