Ever since our political, social and cultural life became largely dependent on the effects of an ongoing pandemic, the presence of death in public debates has been witnessing a noticeable increase. Be it regular death statistics, dying people in intensive care units, or the loss of others: speaking about death has become more common, and death has regained a significant position in social discourse. In the Global North, and especially in its urban contexts, there has been only little everyday awareness of our own ephemerality until quite recently. We had gradually outsourced death to care facilities, hospitals and hospices, and we defined death as a matter of old age that we might address later—whenever our time had come.
This also pertains to rituals that we use to deal with death, or rather fail to use. Particularly the past few years have shown how little routine we have in dealing with death. We lack familiar ways of reacting to death, of lending meaning to death culturally. This also applies to music. And given the fading relevance of religion, the bereaved often aim to add a personal touch to farewell ceremonies by choosing non-sacred pieces of music.
The “Funeral Music” best-of list put out by Bestattung Wien, Vienna’s municipal provider of funeral services and cemetery property, illustrates this phenomenon. Its recommendations mirror the statistical accumulation of music selected for funeral services, which is also representative of the Austrian context at large. Tellingly divided into the categories of “Classical”, “Pop”, “Folk Song”, and “Schlager”, songs like Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to say Goodbye” (Pop section), Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my Way” (Schlager section), or Andreas Gabalier’s “Amoi seg ma uns wieder” (“One Day We Will Meet Again,” Schlager section) are widely employed evergreens of contemporary sepulchral music—to using the technical term for funeral music as a way of highlighting the these songs’ functional redefinition. Bestattung Wien not only recommends songs but also offers appropriate musicians: funeral singers, whose profession is unjustifiably one of low social valuation even though these professional musicians create the very sound of mourning.
But what about the musical expressivity of those who mourn? To express themselves artistically undoubtedly would have beneficial effects in terms of processing their grief. The bereaved, however, stay silent—and the funeral guests, as well, remain “in silent condolence,” as it is said. It is barely imaginable for them to articulate, externalise, and make audible grief and pain via vocal expressivity. Speaking about death is likewise delegated. In Vienna, it is often funeral orators—employed by Bestattung Wien and unrelated to the deceased person—who make farewell speeches. All of these phenomena make clear how the bereaved do feel the need to personalise the funeral services of their loved ones—but in fact, such services remain remarkably impersonal in urban contexts.
This becomes apparent especially in comparison to examples of musical mourning in my ethnomusicological research with the Croatian minority in Burgenland. The fact that this very community has to this day maintained a distinct musical tradition connected to death, dying, and mourning is not least due to the importance of Catholicism and corresponding rituals of folk piety in the everyday life of Burgenland Croatian villages. More importantly, however, minority ethnic identity along with the associated frictions seems to foster musical traditions in funeral contexts. When a villager dies, the community reflects on its cultural distinctiveness: in the face of death, musical traditions linked to Croatian-ness seem to enable cultural self-assurance among the living.
Singing wake songs on the eve of a funeral is a good example. Until the 1970s, the family and neighbours of the deceased would spend nights praying and singing next to the corpse laid out in the house. But then, new legislation regarding how corpses lie in repose suddenly interfered with this tradition and relegated it to the funeral chapels that were built at that time across all of Austria. The vigil for the dead, however, has endured. Instead of entire nights, it now takes place for a few hours on the eve of a funeral. The village community sings wake songs as a way of taking leave of the dead person—or the other way around. One of the most popular wake songs, for examples, goes as follows:
Došla mi je ura skrajna, nosit te me van stanja.
[My last hour has come, you will carry me out of the house.]
Svaki će pojt po vom putu, ptičic glasa već ne čut,
[Everyone will take this path, not hear the bird’s voices]
ke ta spivat zvrhu mene, kad mi tijelo prah bude.
[that will sing above me, when my body will be dust.]
Or a bit further on:
Zbogom moje sirotice, vi ste majku zgubile.
[Farewell my poor children, you have lost your mother.]
It would seem to be of benefit to the grieving process to join together and sing songs handed down over generations, songs with lyrics in which the deceased says goodbye to the ones who commemorate them by singing.
But among Burgenland Croats, as well, certain musical mourning rituals are in the process of disappearing from the funeral rite—such as the song of farewell to the dead (the Spričanje), hardly ever sung today, which consists of poetry commissioned by the bereaved and was sung at the wake by teachers, cantors, or precentors who had known the deceased (see Dobrovich and Enislidis 1999). In the lyrics, the deceased person says goodbye to all relatives and acquaintances while also addressing their own death. A particularly impressive example from the Pinka Valley is that of a young woman whose drowning in the Pinka river is portrayed as a sad accident, though it may well have been a final escape from precarious living conditions.
I ja sam se prošla prikčera kupati,
[And I went to bathe the day before yesterday]
zdrava i vesela, potnoga tela prat.
[healthy and happy, to wash the sweating body.]
Kot sam ’z briga v’Pinku sigurno skočila,
[when from the hill into the Pinka i safely jumped]
vodena dibina tužnu mej’ povlikla.
[the depth of the water pulled me, sad one, down.]
Kristuša na križu, sulicom preboli,
[They pierced Christ on the cross with a spear,]
i mene su ’z vode sulicom van zeli,
[and they took me out of the water with a spear,]
kakov strah obašal, mene gledajući,
[what a shiver went around when they saw me]
kad su mrtvo telo ’z vode van izneli.
[when they pulled my dead body out of the water.]
This documented example of a Spričanje encompasses over 20 verses and lasts nearly half an hour in sung form—anything but a restrained way of mourning, as the poetry publicly addresses death in all its force.
Probably the most impressive form of expressive mourning is that of funeral laments, which remained a permanent part of the funeral soundscape in the Croatian village of Stinjaki/Stinatz in southern Burgenland into the 1970s. Here, lamenters take leave of the deceased from the individual perspectives of the bereaved—lamenting, crying and screaming. Lamenting the dead was the social norm of mourning, with female next of kin obliged to do so. In melodically stylised lament sequences within a five-tone range, the lamenter addresses the dead person, speaks directly to them, poses all manner of questions, sends greetings to other deceased, recalls moments shared together, likeable character traits, or even their favourite food, but also makes a theme of the future of the corpse in the grave’s dark soil, one’s own grief, the desperation and the pain of having been abandoned. Striking here is this ritual’s decidedly feminine attribution: while lamenting represents a sphere of enhanced female agency, it also reinforces stereotypical concepts of femininity via its connotations of psychological crisis and hysteria (see Kölbl 2021).
In the 1980s, laments—Javkanje in Burgenland Croatian—gradually vanished from the public sphere and became taboo. The ritual seemed too “backward” and “archaic”, and it bore within it the danger of being associated with the “strange” and “different.” But behind closed doors and with the blinds down, women went on lamenting—not least in order to avoid owing anything to the dead. Since lamenting only takes place in secret nowadays, young Burgenland Croats know laments only from hearsay—and only the old women in the village still possess this musical competence.
A longing for such rituals may also be owed to nostalgic glorification of traditional rural life fuelled by cultural pessimism—and indeed, it would seem beneficial to adapt ways of dealing with death to current circumstances. But nevertheless, given death’s present-day medicalisation and professionalisation, we actually do have need of expressive forms of mourning that would better enable us to process grief, since the silence of our voices may not, in fact, be the most effective means by which to deal with death.
Dobrovich, Jakob und Ingeborg Enislidis. 1999. Spričanje. Das Toten-Abschiedslied der Kroaten im Burgenland (Volksmusik im Burgenland, Corpus Musicae popularis Austriacae, vol. 11), Vienna: Böhlau.
Kölbl, Marko. 2021. “Gender Performativity in Burgenland Croatian Laments” in: Ursula Hemetek, Inna Naroditskaya, and Terada Yoshitaka (eds.): Music and Marginalisation: Beyond the Minority-Majority Paradigm (Senri Ethnological Studies, vol. 105). Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 209–226.