What’s a Recessional for a Funeral or Memorial Service?

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What is a recessional? One of the definitions of “recessional” is “of or relating to a withdrawal.” The word can also refer to the music that plays as a group withdraws or leaves from a gathering place.

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A recessional usually takes place at life’s significant formal events: graduations, weddings, and of course, funerals.

Let’s discuss what happens during a funeral recessional. We’ll discuss the purpose of having one, the typical order that attendees leave, what happens after the recessional, and what songs are usually played at a Christian funeral recessional.

What Happens During a Recessional?

At the conclusion of the funeral, sometimes as the recessional music begins to play, the officiant leaves the house of worship. The casket (assisted by the pallbearers) may leave next. Members of the immediate family follow the coffin. 

The spouse (or significant other) and children of the deceased usually leave first. The family exits in the order they were sitting at the funeral — in-laws, nieces, and nephews may be mixed together. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other people given a place of honor at the funeral may follow if they sat in the rows behind the immediate family.

Sometimes the congregation finishes the final hymn as this recessional takes place, but sometimes the attendees are led out during the last verses. This may be a formal process, with funeral home staff, church staff, or pallbearers stopping at the end of each row and dismissing one group at a time. Other times, the attendees are free to leave as soon as the recessional song ends.

Sometimes the minister gives final directions before they leave as to what comes next. Other times, a family member stays back from the original recessional to thank everyone for coming and to announce what follows.

If the deceased will lay to rest in a cemetery following the funeral service, either the officiant or family member may invite the attendees to form the procession of cars, led by the hearse, to the cemetery. Attendees will be dismissed in an announcement if the graveside or mausoleum-side service is intended for only members of the immediate family.

Sometimes a meal or repast is planned after the funeral or graveside service. Details of this meal may be given to the attendees during this final announcement.

Even though this is an example of a funeral recessional, it may vary a lot. Some faith communities are more formal than others, and you may find that there is no formal recessional at all. Whether or not the deceased has been cremated, and the final resting place of the cremains may also be a factor.

If you are planning the funeral, you may work out these details with the officiant. They have more experience in such matters and will advise you on the best way to recess for each given situation.

If you are an attendee at a funeral, sit quietly and wait to find out whether you are formally dismissed at the end of the funeral or free to leave whenever you are comfortable. It shouldn’t take too long before the expectations are readily apparent.

Of course, if a formal recessional is taking place, wait your turn to be released. Rushing out of the funeral out of turn makes it look like you think your time is more valuable than others. You may have to be patient during this process, especially if the funeral is well attended. 

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What’s the Purpose of a Recessional?

There are several reasons that recessionals take place after funerals. 

  1. First, funerals are formal events, and recessionals are traditional. They lend an air of solemnity to an occasion.
  2. Second, recessionals give honor to the members of the immediate family.
  3. Also, recessionals play a functional role at funerals because they protect the immediate family members who may be too overcome with emotion to interact with attendees. Once the family members leave the funeral, they may go immediately to their cars or a gathering place in the church, to wait for others to process to the cemetery or fellowship hall. This allows them to reflect on the thoughts shared at the funeral and collect themselves for the next event.
  4. Finally, recessionals are sometimes necessary for crowd management. When too many people leave a place at the same time, doorways can become congested. This may be uncomfortable for the elderly or someone with mobility issues. Spacing out when groups of people leave an event may make the crowd easier to manage. 

What Are Popular Recessional Songs for a Christian or Catholic Funeral?

If the deceased pre-planned the memorial service, they may have chosen the music, including the recessional song. Look for those plans before you select music for the service. If they exist, it will make things much easier for you.

Otherwise, most people work with the officiant and consult the other members of the immediate family to choose the music for a funeral. Some denominations and officiants are more particular than others that only sacred music or hymns are chosen. Others may allow for secular music as well. 

If your loved one was a Christian, here are some recessional songs or hymns that you may consider using. You might also want to consult this list of the best funeral songs of all time

1. “Let There Be Peace on Earth” 

Sometimes recessional songs tend to be more uplifting and hopeful than sad. This song inspires others to live in harmony with those around them, which may be a necessary message if the funeral concludes with a gathering of the extended family.

2. “On Eagle’s Wings”

The beautiful song was used at the funerals of many of the victims of the September 11 attacks. The lyrics include, “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn.”

3. “Amazing Grace”

This is one of the most recognizable and beloved hymns of all time. 

4. “Time to Say Goodbye”

This beautiful song is not considered sacred, but it has been used at some funerals. You may have only heard the song sung in Italian. If so, take the time to read the lyrics in English. “When I’m alone I dream on the horizon and words fail. I know that you are with me. You are my moon.”

5. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You”

While the eulogy at a funeral sometimes focuses on the deceased, this hymn turns the focus back to God. This familiar hymn is a popular choice for recessionals.

6. “Crown Him with Many Crowns”

This hymn has a more upbeat tone. It begins, “Crown him with many crowns, the lamb upon the throne. Hark! how the heav’nly anthem drowns all music but its own! Awake, my soul, and sing; of him who died for thee; and hail him as thy matchless king, through all eternity.”

7. “Nearer My God to Thee”

Musicians gathered on the deck of the Titanic and played this hymn as the great ship sunk into the North Atlantic Ocean. This is more somber than some of the other selections on our list, but it is an entirely appropriate choice for a funeral recessional song.

8. “I Will Rise”

This song would be an appropriate choice for recessional music for a Christian who suffered from an extended illness before death. The lyrics read, “And I will rise when he calls my name; no more sorrow, no more pain; I will rise on eagles’ wings before my God, fall on my knees and rise. I will rise.”

This song may comfort the family who may be able to envision their loved one pain-free and rejoicing. 

9. “When the Saints Go Marching In”

The music used in the processional to the cemetery at a New Orleans jazz funeral is extremely slow-paced and somber. But the recessional from the graveyard is an entirely different story. The music is upbeat and accompanied by dancing.

Talk with the Officiant About the Recessional Music

If you choose to have your loved one’s funeral in a church, you may be limited in what type of music will be played for the funeral recessional.

If the choice of music is more important than the location of the service, you may consider having the memorial service at a funeral home where the rules may not be as stringent.

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