Sadly, as we get older, we find ourselves attending more and more funerals. Back in the day, you knew pretty much what to expect at a funeral - it would be structured around some version of the prayer book service, with familiar hymns, readings, maybe a single eulogy - but now we live in more avowedly secular times, and you never know quite what to expect, except that it will be, above all else, a 'celebration of the life'. Personally, I have reservations about this approach (it seems to me that time-honoured religious language - not necessarily belief - offers the best and surest way of addressing the facts of death and grief and uniting the living with the 'great majority'), but a secular funeral can indeed be a moving and rather wonderful thing.
So it was with the funeral we attended yesterday - that of an old walking friend, who had died in his sleep, just short of his 72nd birthday. I knew him as a genial companion, a gentle soul - and a happy one, despite much sadness in his life - but what I hadn't realised was just how big a Bob Dylan fan he was (I wish I'd known; we could have beguiled many a weary mile with Dylan talk). After the entrance music, Turn! Turn! Turn!, sung by Judy Collins - not a Dylan song, of course - it was Dylan all the way. Following a succession of heartfelt eulogies came the most intensely moving part of the service - a recording of one of his daughters singing, very beautifully, Lay Down Your Weary Tune.
This is a pretty obscure Dylan song, initially rejected from The Times They Are A Changin' and only surfacing in 1985 on the Biograph compilation. In the meanwhile, though, it had been covered by The Byrds - on the Turn! Turn! Turn! album, in fact - and it was from this version that I half-knew the song. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. When he wrote it, Dylan was (he says) trying to re-create the feel of a Scottish folk song, and it is indeed very 'folky', the verses written in common measure (lines of four feet and three feet alternating). It is also a song deeply imbued with religion, with biblical cadences and the feel of a hymn or psalm. Indeed it has been called 'one of the greatest theological songs since King David composed his psalms' - which is pushing it a bit, but it is a wonderful song, and, given the right performance, deeply moving. The Byrds' version was judged inferior and shoddy at the time, but it still sounds pretty marvellous to me - here's the link; judge for yourself.
Meanwhile, back at the funeral - my friend's (or his daughters') masterstroke was to end with Maggie's Farm as everyone left the (packed) chapel. It sounds ridiculous, but it was very him, and it worked perfectly. Everyone came out into the spring sunshine with a smile on their face - just as he, that genial soul, would have wanted.