"Weep if you must, parting is Hell. But life goes on, so sing as well.”
Admittedly, karaoke may not have been the first thing that sprang to mind when Joyce Grenfell penned her evergreen poem, If I Should Go.
Yet it’s a sentiment that increasing numbers of us have begun to embrace; literally so in the case of one Northamptonshire family who bid farewell to their dad last year by singing their hearts out – at his funeral disco.
“It began at midday and they sang and danced till midnight,” says mobile DJ John Headley, who provided the funeral karaoke – at the family’s request – as part of his funeral DJ service.
“When I started out, I wasn’t aware of anyone else in the world dealing with this side of bereavement,” he says.
“It’s not just for young people, but the older ones as well and I’ve had calls, too, from people who are terminally ill, planning their own funeral and want a party.”
John, who’s based in Corby, has been a disco DJ providing music and lights for weddings, office parties and birthday bashes for 20 years. Around seven years ago, he had an unusual request from a woman whose mother had died. Would he provide a disco after the funeral, so that friends and family could celebrate her life?
“At first, it felt a bit weird and I was unsure what do,” says John, recalling how he began to play her favourite upbeat songs. “But the family reassured me, saying, ‘It’s for Mum – keep her happy.’”
So John obliged and word spread, prompting him to establish a dedicated website – Spirit In The Sky Entertainments – alongside his party DJ business.
Since then, it’s become a small but significant part of his events diary. He’s manned the decks at funeral reception discos including an Elvis themed wake, a heavy metal fan’s final rock-out and a Royal Navy veteran whose pals danced the night away to crooners including Dean Martin. It was just the way he wanted it, adds John. “His friends were dancing and singing – that was a case of a real celebration of somebody’s life.”
But not every wake is a revel. There are lots of appropriate pop songs for funerals which are replacing funeral hymns. Some people simply want the reception to reflect the life their loved one lived. No flashing disco lights, no dancing, but simply the tunes that evoke their special moments.
As a former guitarist in a band, John’s a “massive” Beatles fan, who says he’d also throw a bit of Thin Lizzy and AC/DC into his own funeral reception disco mix. And yes, he adds, rockers do occasionally request a bit of tongue-in-cheek Highway to Hell, but uplifting 80s chart hits including Celebration by Kool and the Gang, and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family are the most-requested favourites from families.
“When you go to a traditional wake, it’s quite sombre,” says John. “This is a celebration of a life. It’s when you go home and shut the door, that’s when you start grieving.”