View Chapters

Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 8. Sounding her Death Ballads: Funeral Songs as my Mother’s Final Words

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43879


Sitting on the cold, hard wooden pew in church, the space reserved for family – the sharp designation of my responsibility that day, watching your final performance from the coffin. I’d already choked my way through your eulogy, and I sit there in my wet and heavy grief as Kirsty MacColl’s rendition of ‘Days’ rings out through the speakers. My heart cracks down its middle and I know in that moment, I can never listen to that song again (Shadrack, J, pers comms, 2021).
Performance autoethnography allows us to bring the world into play, to make visible […] in fits of nostalgia, to forge a link between myself and the world, the living and the dead, a reaching out to what seems to be ‘slipping away or transmogrifying into something harsh and loud’ (Stewart qtd. in Denzin, 2014, p. 89). [I must] make fleeting sense out of a world gone mad, and I need this because the world does not make very much sense to me right now. (Gingrich-Philbrook, 2013, p.609) When my mother died in 2000, two pieces of music were chosen for the funeral, as if her words and spirit were carried on through their performance in the church. I have often ruminated upon the significance of those pieces of music and how they impacted her death ritual. Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Days’ and Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’, (the Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill version), occupy vastly different emotional and psychological spaces for me, of love, of pain, of beauty, and of earth-shattering grief. I know I cannot listen to the MacColl song again; she would sing it to me on happier days, and I always knew she meant every word. The Bizet is different, perhaps because of the Italian words that I do not understand or perhaps because the harmonic counterpoint between the tenor and the bass, carry the emotional engagement that forges a space within it for hope and transcendence. My recollection for this chapter is framed through my autoethnography, to enable a rigorous structure for analysis that incorporates my grief, rather than requesting I sidestep it. Which I cannot do. Gingrich-Philbrook notes that ‘autoethnography works its territory between the orienting and disorienting story’ (2013, p.609) and when I hear these pieces of music, I am immediately interpellated into the liminal space that sits between; I am oriented and disoriented, I am between life and death, silence and hearing, the void and music. My mother reaches out to me through this music and sometimes this is ok, but most times it is not. What is it that I hear through their role in her life and death? This is my ‘deep, inner groping for meaning, and this self and its meanings are forever and always unfinished productions’ (Denzin, 2014, p.89). This chapter uses interpretive performance autoethnography to identify the epiphanic moments for data analysis whilst applying a musicological analysis to ‘Days’ and ‘The Pearl Fishers’ to identify how death and hearing are conveyed through my experience of them at her funeral and long into my afterlife.

Chapter Contributors

  • Jasmine Hazel Shadrack ([email protected] - jshadrack) 'Falmouth University/ University of Missouri / BIMM Berlin'