British DJ John Headley is pretty chipper in conversation, yet in the past few years, his chosen line of work has taken a macabre turn. After beginning his career in the 90s, with a mobile disco service, he's expanded his business beyond the typical circuit of weddings and parties to become a funeral DJ—as in, a guy who picks the music that plays at funeral services at wakes. The website for his Spirit In The Sky Entertainments proclaims, "Go out with a bang. Say your goodbyes to your loved ones with music that they loved, treasured and partied to. Spirit In The Sky Entertainments will make sure your loved ones will be remembered for the fun loving person that they were."
Speaking to THUMP recently, Headley explained how music affects the grieving process. He also told us which songs he gets requested the most.
THUMP: How did you get into playing funerals?
John Headley: It was about five years ago. I got a phone call out of the blue and a woman said her mother had passed away and she would like a party for her funeral, a celebration of her life.
It was a full on party. The lady who passed away was terminally ill and she planned her funeral. She wanted a celebration and she wanted her favourite songs played. I sorta' got what everything was about. That day was about the family remembering their mom who'd passed away and the party was about how much she enjoyed life.
She was a party animal?
Yeah, she was a party animal. But, that's what it's about. It's the next day, when they go home that's when we all deal with the grief of losing a loved one. But on that day, it's about remembering that special person who passed away.
What music is most popular at funerals?
I'd say mostly it's the 80s, like classic Michael Jackson, WHAM!, this sort of thing, Motown—as long as it's happy. It's always "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang, "We are Family" by Sister Sledge, "All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles, and I've never ever been asked to play "My Way" by Frank Sinatra. It's always been uplifting songs, you know, happy songs.
Last year, a close friend of mine passed away, he was terminally ill with cancer. He wanted Kiss played; he was a real rocker. Guns N' Roses and stuff. That was a very colourful funeral.
What do you like to end a funeral set with?
Unless the family has asked for the last song, I would keep it happy, maybe ABBA or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons - "Oh What a night."
What are the five songs you want played at your funeral?
Well I'd definitely have Lynyrd Skynyrd - "I Know A Little." that was on the last album they'd done in the 70s before that tragic plane crash. I'd probably have a Beatles song, maybe a bit of AC/DC. Bob Seger - "Hollywood Nights." And I'd have Bruce Springsteen - "Mary's Place." It's just a really happy, uplifting track. What would you have?
I don't know, I listen to some pretty upsetting music. I think I might have a Leonard Cohen song.
My mum loves Leonard Cohen.
Have you had people at these wakes that felt strange about the fact there was a DJ?
Yeah. Not many. One or two. I think it was at the first one. Someone was saying, "This is really a bit unusual."
Have you been doing this more and more regularly now through word of mouth and your website?
Yeah, it's slowly picking up. If people know about this, then it's an option for them. Not a lot of people know about this service.
There's always going to be funerals happening.
Well that's it. Christenings, weddings, deaths, this is a certainty for us all. My punchline is, I say, "Taking deposits now."
What is the strangest song you've had requested at a funeral?
AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." It's a weird song in a way, but it's a great song.
Strangely in context—
There was a lady last year whose husband died. Only fifty-one. I didn't know the chap in particular, I was just going on with the job, kept it happy, smiled. Well about two weeks ago, I got a call: "Hi, is that John? Are you free to do a date next year, a fiftieth birthday party?"
I said, "Do I know you?" and she said, "Yes, you did my husband's wake last year."
It's hard to explain. For 99 per cent of the day everyone is laughing and really enjoying themselves and happy, but obviously towards the end there's a few tears going a little bit because that's it. It's finished. They're going home. It's when you go home and you close your door and you're on your own, that's when we all have to deal with grief when we lose a loved one. It's like a release on that day. It's like a closure—then you go home and start dealing with the grief.
You can book John Headley for your funeral at his official website.