Thinking Music: Death Edition

Call me morbid, but I’m fascinated by death. It’s not that there’s any hurry for me to get there (I love life and want it to last as long as possible), but the finality and mystery of our inevitable demise have a way of arousing an endless array of questions and curiosities in my mind. Who are we? Where are we going? What’s the point of life? How do we make the most of what we’re given? Nothing activates my inner philosopher quite like a glimpse of the end toward which we’re all headed.

Maybe this is why I have a special affinity for songs that address the subject of dying. Somewhere deep in the melancholy of a musical reflection about mortality, I’ve found the emotional and intellectual space to explore my own questions, doubts, and ideas. Such songs effectively interrupt the daily monotony of familiar routines, drawing me toward matters of transcendent significance.

Several weeks back I shared about my love for thoughtful, reflective music, and I offered the first in a series of playlists that I curated to let others enjoy some of the songs that have shaped my inner life in recent years. That list focused on issues of spirituality; this time around, I’m sharing some of my favorite songs that address the topic of death.

We human beings have wrestled with the reality of death for thousands of years, and no song is going to solve all the mysteries for us. But what these songs can do is drag us into the conversation. They can force us to think. And that’s what all of these have done for me. None of these tracks will likely make it into the rotation for your next dance party. But they might be worthy companions for a rainy day when you need a little quality time with a healthy sense of existential dread.

Ruston Kelly, “Brave”

You know you’re in for some intense personal reflection when you hear a song whose very first lines ask, “Who am I and how will I / Be remembered when I die?” It’s an uncomfortable question, but it’s also one full of possibility. In a culture that doesn’t like to think about death, Ruston Kelly invites us to reimagine life’s priorities in light of its inevitable end.

The Avett Brothers, “No Hard Feelings”

Speaking of profound questions in the opening lines of a song, here’s one worth contemplating: “When my body won’t hold me anymore / And it finally lets me free / Will I be ready?” The rest of the song explores what it looks like to approach death with the confidence of having lived well and loved generously. Do any of us really want to take grudges to our graves?

Death Cab for Cutie, “What Sarah Said”

Any playlist on the theme of mortality has to have a DCFC track, and the obvious choice would be “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” But although that song might be more well known, this one contains some of the most poignant lyrics about death that I’ve ever heard. They make me realize that maybe the greatest human fear isn’t our own departure, but the departure of those we love.

Sleeping at Last, “Saturn”

Like all great poetry, this song has layers upon layers of meaning. The lyrics are sparse yet suggestive, opening up an emotional landscape shaped by loss, longing, and the enduring legacy of those who taught us the most important things in life. Just as “light carries on endlessly after death,” so does the influence of our departed parents, grandparents, and other sagely mentors.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “If We Were Vampires”

Not many people think of death as a gift. But Jason Isbell dares us to rethink our assumptions. Sure, it would be nice not to die. But if we didn’t have death looming over our heads, how would the quality of our relationships be affected? Would love lose its urgency, its sweetness, its fierce determination to be fully present to another human being in the few fleeting moments that we have?

Lori McKenna, “The Fixer”

When it comes to capturing the melancholy beauty of ordinary life, Lori McKenna has an uncanny talent. Although “The Fixer” doesn’t directly address the topic of death, it’s a song that forces us to come to terms with our own powerlessness in the face of failing health and life-threatening illness. In the end, we’re left wondering: What do we do when we can’t do anything for those we love?

Cinematic Orchestra, “To Build a Home”

In a hundred years, I’ll be dead, gone, and forgotten. But that doesn’t make my life meaningless. It just makes it all the more beautiful that I’ve been given this opportunity to carve out a little slice of home where love can flourish and experiences can be shared. Some may hear this song as a cynical lament that all good things come to an end; I hear it as a celebration of all good things that came to be.

David Ramirez, “I’m Not Going Anywhere”

Despite our different religious convictions, most of humanity longs for some way to carry on even after we’ve passed. Whether it’s by some form of eternal consciousness or simply though the memories that we leave behind with those we loved, there’s something delightfully defiant about refusing to believe death has the final word.

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