What it’s really like to work as a funeral singer

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Briony Rawle, 30, is the founder of London Funeral Singers. She lives in south London with her boyfriend and housemate

My alarm goes off…

At 7am. Funerals tend to be between 11am and 1pm and you need at least three hours to prepare your voice. Churches can be cold, so I do a 45-minute vocal warm-up exercise before having a big breakfast – no dairy because it clogs the voice – and putting on a smart black outfit with a brooch. Then I check my route – we have to allow enough time to get to the funeral an hour beforehand – and leave around 9am.

I’m responsible for…

Performing songs at funerals and making sure our singers are fully prepared. When we book jobs I talk to clients to get an idea of who the deceased was, what sort of music they liked and the tone of the funeral. New singers audition twice a year and we draw them from the ranks of professional performers. We usually have three funerals a week but the numbers are increasing as we gain exposure.

I got the job…

After working as an actor. I did a master’s in classical acting at Drama Centre London and formed a theatre company. I met my business partner Penny during a production. We started singing together and she told me about her idea for a funeral singing agency. I jumped at the idea – my classical voice lends itself to hymns – and together we set up the agency in 2015. 

My typical day…

Starts when I get to the location of the funeral – we do everything from churches to crematoria. We’ll set up an hour before the service for a quick rehearsal. The number of singers varies: it can be a solo job or a 16-strong choir. We won’t talk to the family unless they come over and say hello. We don’t want to add to what they have to think about. Usually there will be around three songs: two hymns, which we lead, and then another choice. We’re always asked for Schubert’s Ave Maria, while the most popular contemporary requests we get are Fields Of Gold or Wind Beneath My Wings. People say My Way is the most popular funeral song but it’s not been requested thus far. 

I do get emotional but I keep a lid on it by biting my tongue or reading my music to distract me. After the funeral – which can last anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes – we wait for the congregation to leave and then disperse. I’ll have a hot chocolate and sandwich in Pret and then work from home for the rest of the day, advising clients and booking jobs until 6pm.

My most memorable moment…

Was singing Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes at the funeral of a stillborn baby. I saw how cathartic the song was for the parents and it made me realise how much people need music at that difficult time.

The worst part of my job…

Is seeing people in such a sad state after losing someone close to them. It’s very tough.

The best part of my job…

Is being able to do something for grieving people. The feedback we get is a lot more meaningful than other singing jobs. It’s a different kind of thanks.

After work…

I’ll cook with my boyfriend, although I’m a lazy chef so it’ll be something easy like fishcakes. We’ll watch TV – I love Netflix’s Wild Wild Country – and be in bed by 11.30pm.

My Plan B: Lexicographer

I’d always thought it would be fun to work for the English Dictionary. Word history fascinates me – I have an English degree – and I’m always pointing things out about different words. The way language evolves and the history of it is really interesting.

Images: Sarah Brimley