What's The Last Song You Want To Listen To Before You Die?

Words: Riley Stevenson
November 27, 2022

“This is the last song I want to listen to before I die.”

He said it almost without thinking, his voice carrying through the small cabin over the opening chords of Phil Collins’ eternal ‘In The Air Tonight’. I sat back, stunned into silence. What did that even mean? Why that song? Do we have any choice in when we die, and what we hear while we do it?

I was sixteen when these questions rocked my world. It was a dreary October night, in a cabin in the woods with three new friends. The friend who said it dangled in a loft above me, speaker playing tinnily as he continued talking, moving onto a different topic.

His off-hand comment stayed with me for months, quietly plaguing me with its plethora of implications. When I mentioned it to him, he said he barely even remembered saying it, and was shocked it had inspired such a reaction in me.

My resolve was only strengthened by this response, and I set out to make it a personal mission, to ask people what song they wanted to listen to before they died. I wanted to compile these maybe touching, maybe morbid wishes in a neat and tidy playlist, which I thought would start candid and perhaps weird conversations. I had no idea that this playlist would come to mean so much more.

For me, the central issue in considering what you want to hear before you die is this idea of control. The idea that we could ever actually implement these wishes is an unthinkable window into the future, an image that I simply cannot seriously envision. Never before had I been tasked to picture and consider death in such a calm, coordinated fashion.

I pictured this friend being spoon fed ice chips by his girlfriend in sixty years, a never-ending loop of Phil Collins playing in the background, just in case. Logistically, it is ridiculous to imagine we can pick the circumstances surrounding our deaths . At the same time, it is beautiful to imagine we’ll get to craft those final few moments, the music we’ll get to hear as the clock winds down, the choices we get to make about the end of our music-listening and living careers. There are so many beautiful sounds I’ve heard in my life, and will hear in the future. Wouldn’t it be delightful to pick what comes last, to go out with our favorite sounds from a well-lived life?

At the time, death seemed like anything but controllable and imaginable. I had, only a year before this first pivotal conversation, lost a dear friend in a sudden accident. It was my first Big Death, the one that takes your breath away and changes the shape of the world right before your eyes. After that, it was unimaginable to me that death could be so kind and gentle, so shaped by sounds of our youth, something to be completed with a loved one by your side.

Her death was violent and abrupt, a caesura in the music, not a slow and gentle fading out of the strings and horns. Music was a lifeline for me in the days following her death. I was stuck hundreds of miles away from home, and ended up marooned in a large Midwestern airport for more than twelve hours, grieving, listless, thinking of nothing but the unfairness of a life gone too soon.

I set about making a playlist, gathering together my favorite songs of hers to buoy me through those miserable moments. Many of them are intangibly marked by her memory now: ‘Atlantic City’ (The Band’s version specifically, which she loved to sing loudly in the car, windows open, soft summer air blowing our hair backwards), Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘Wagon Wheel’. I am still nearly floored when I hear these songs in public, and they will always and forever make me think of her, her beautiful bright light snuffed out much too soon.

Music brought me closer to her when everything felt far away and unthinkable. While this music helped me grieve, it brought me no closer to coming to terms with the reality of death. It took until that fateful October night and the beginning of my “before you die” playlist to start to really consider what it means to die, and be alive.

Inevitably, questions about death lead to conversations about life, and love. When I have asked people about their death song, the conversations have led to discussions of what it means to die, to love, to be loved. Death is the lens through which we consider what we have lived for.

However, the last song before you die is much more complicated than love. It is, I think, not enough to consider a song that you love now, something you feel encapsulates your life or emotions as they currently stand. My favorite, most-loved song changes seemingly every day, and I am sure that ninety-year-old-me would be pissed to go out on whatever song fickle nineteen-year-old-me chose. We are ever evolving, and ever more complicated than this moment in time, as is our sense of love and self.

The playlist in its present form is a cacophony of sounds, each song more different than the last. It spans genres, decades, contexts, and reasonings, much like the conversations that accompanied each one’s addition to the list. I have asked close friends and family members, co-workers, friends-of-friends, people I’ve met at parties. I am fastidious about adding each to the list, although much less thorough about remembering who picked what.

It is fascinating to me the range of reactions I’ve gotten to this question. A small minority can tell me immediately what the song is, what it means to them, and how it came into their life. One friend couldn’t decide, so sent me an entire playlist, and excitedly detailed to me each song’s role in her life. The majority either ask, “what the hell did you just say?” or waffle around for a while. Usually, I give those people twenty-four hours to give me an answer, and if they don’t know by then, they are a lost cause, resigned to a silent and un-fun death.

The playlist is really not a list of music for playing–– it’s weird, cacophonous, at times heart-wrenching, and at times discordantly ferocious, loud and disjointed. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and listened to the playlist in its entirety. Instead, I use it much more as a piece of reference. I’ve found some beautiful songs through it, and like to look back at it from time to time and remember the impactful conversations and moments that accompanied each song.

I love the variety of songs on the playlist, the explanations from the choosers about their choice, their vision, the moment they picture along with the song.

Some people go for pure beauty and volume of sound–– there are multiple symphony orchestra, jazz piano, and choral arrangements on the list. I like the idea of dying surrounded by a wall of sound, feeling the ebb and flow, the building and fading of timpani and intertwined voices. Classical music reminds me of a specific moment in my life, a time filled with complicated emotions and a roller coaster of feelings, and this music has always felt that way to me as well. Much like dying, maybe.

Some people go for theme, focusing on songs about death. Usually these choices take a while for people to come up with, and are some of my favorite thought processes to work through. I like the idea of listening last to a song that describes the process as it happens, songs that soothe and calm in the face of the frightening abyss. There are many beautiful songs about death, and I like the idea of ending with that, forecasting what is to come.

‘I Know The End’ by Phoebe Bridgers’ makes the list, that slow, building roll which starts only with Bridgers’ haunting voice, with drums, horns, backing vocals, and strings entering until they reach a cacophonous breaking point, pierced through with Bridgers’ eternal scream. This is a song that demands your full attention, forcing you to feel its every emotion and drum beat. This song makes me want to drive fast on a backroad, scream into the ocean, all of those moody, mercurial activities that have a way of making facing death seem like the liveliest thing around. Bridgers’ breathy screams at the end of the song are both comforting and haunting, the song’s final moments blurring into an uneasy silence.

Some are downright silly songs about dying, like John Prine’s ‘Please Don’t Bury Me’, which opens with the lines “Woke up this morning/Put on my slippers/Walked in the kitchen and died/And oh what a feeling!”, and repeats the titular line “But please don't bury me/ Down in that cold cold ground”. The idea of bringing silliness into the idea of death was entirely foreign to me before this practice and in many ways encapsulates what this playlist does–– makes death okay, something to chuckle about and discuss what comes after. Prine asks us not to bury deep down these feelings, but bubble them up to the surface, complete with banjos and classic boom-chick silliness. He asks us not to bury him, but “pass me all around”. I like the songs that leave instructions to the grieving, that demand we not simply move along and forget.

Similarly, the most recent song on the playlist, Tom Waits’ ‘Come on Up to the House’ speaks to the fleeting nature of life, the idea of simply passing by on the way to what’s next. Waits’ growling, throaty voice punctuates a simple instrumental arrangement with the existential message “Come on up to the house/ The world is not my home/ I'm just a-passing through/ You got to come on up to the house”. Waits asks “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short”, answering his own question by disregarding this existence and looking ahead to his immortal resting place. Waits makes the idea of death seem as easy as heading home, returning to what came before, which is to me one of the more comforting images of death.

One of the songs I learned about through this playlist was ‘Morning Dew’ by The Grateful Dead, a poignant song about a post-apocalyptic world, and the awe and wonder shining through it. To me, this song illuminates the beauty of the last song practice, a tender moment shared, the ability to see the morning dew in a destroyed world. The song ends with the lines “Walk me out in the morning dew my honey/Walk me out in the morning dew today/I'll walk you out in the morning dew my honey/I guess it doesn't really matter anyway”, another song which builds as the last line repeats, fading out with the band in full swing, repeating, endlessly, “I guess it doesn’t really matter anyway”. It doesn’t, does it? Not in the end, anyways. This song came from one of my more random encounters, a chef I worked with on a pig farm and likely won’t speak to ever again. And yet, I’ll forever have this song to remember him by, the image of him and his honey walking into the morning dew.

Some people are borderline lazy, and pick their favorite song of the moment: Queue ‘Body’ by Russ Millions. These friends either couldn’t choose, or genuinely couldn’t stop listening to these songs at the time. I’d love to circle back with them later in life, to see how they feel about their songs, and chat about how our tastes change as we grow and mature.

One of the beautiful things about this practice is that it captures a moment in time, how we feel about death right now, not later or near the end. As much as I want it to be some timeless practice that communicates something deep and wistful about human nature, it is so much more about the present, the conversations we have and the thoughts we think now about that unknown, uncontrollable future.

Songs about love make great death songs, too. One of my most closely-held songs on the playlist is ‘Sail Away’ by David Gray, “Sail away with me/What will be will be/I want to hold you now, now, now”, a song that reminds me of home, summer mornings, my tone-deaf dad, and the importance of loving the people you love, and letting the rest, well, sail away. This song has a distinctly melancholic tone to it, despite the gentle offering of its lyrics. It always makes me sad-happy, a bit fuller and emptier by its end. ‘Byegone’, from one of Justin Vernon’s little-known projects Volcano Choir, similarly features a fever pitch refrain of “Set sail!”. Letting go, setting sail, leaving it all behind, is a theme that permeates life, love, and death.

‘Halcyon’ by The Paper Kites makes the list, too, a beautiful, simple diddy ending with the beautiful refrain “We can love, we can love/And the birds will sing our song in Halcyon”. I have always loved songs about love, and I think it is beautiful to envision this as an idea of what happens after death. We just keep loving, in a beautiful place, and the birds continue to tell our stories.

Some people want to go out with a bang, dancing and remembering raucous moments with songs like ‘Play That Funky Music’, Wild Cherry, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, The Beatles,  ‘Stand By Me’, Ben E. King, ‘Dancing Around My Grave’, Andy Frasco & the U.N.. (The last holds particular significance for the family member who picked it who, whenever we encountered a new challenge on a recent canoeing trip, would scream “no brakes, aaa-ll gas!!”, a perfect life thesis for her.)

The playlist gets stranger and more eclectic the further you look. Often these seemingly confusing picks come from enduring favorite songs, songs with connections to family, or were picked because I just so happened to ask friends in the middle of a dance party.

I could write about each and every song on the playlist, what it means to me, and its relation to death. However, this practice isn’t really about the songs, it’s about the people attached to them.

I have learned so much about the people I love by asking them this question, and really leaning into their answers. My favorite conversation about this playlist took place deep in the Chilean wilderness, on an eight-day backpacking trip with two of my brothers and an aunt. I asked them somewhere on day four, the hardest day of our trip, complete with the most beautiful, existential views I’ve ever seen and the most taxing elevation gains. All three gave varying testimony about their choices– this one is beautiful, this one reminds me of Dad, this one is beautiful and about death. In writing this piece, I texted my middle brother, who suggested my absolute favorite song on the playlist, ‘Ocean (Live)’ by John Butler Trio, to ask him to remind me why he chose it. It is a beautiful, sweeping, intricate, energetic piece of instrumental music that without fail makes me both smile and cry. To me, this song is the sound of three musicians innately and intimately knowing each other, in the same way I hope to be known by the people I love throughout my life. It is my main character plane-takeoff song, it reminds me of that trip with fondness, it makes me feel that whatever happens after death will be okay if it feels the way this song sounds.

My brother responded in classic form, sharing that he feels like the song captivates every part of his soul, leaving him feeling both full and empty by its end. He went on to say, “maybe it's that I kinda imagine that that’s what death is like. For a moment you're filled with all the parts of life that came before, the good and the bad, and you hopefully feel full. And then it's over”.

One of my favorite conductors, from my time as a concert percussionist, once said that we make music for the silence that comes after, for the captivated moment when an entire audience and group of musicians is stunned into silence, breath held, fully there and in the moment created by the music. Maybe that’s the moment we are all trying to capture in our pre-death songs. The moment of captivation. The held breath. The reflection on all things loved and lived. The reason we made all of that glorious, wild music in our lives.

The conversations around these songs have ranged from morbid to euphoric, but most importantly, they’ve forced me to talk about death. After that first Big Death, death felt like a dirty word and a dirty topic, something that, if I just never mentioned it, I’d never have to deal with again. No one would ever be taken from me if I went back to my before-times method of never considering the reality of death. If I just held my breath, walked on eggshells, never considered that one day my time too will be up, then it would never affect me quite the same way.

But by talking about it, by forcing others and myself to picture this tiny sliver of dignity many years in the future, I was able to put death into perspective again. It comes for us all, sooner or later, sometimes too soon, sometimes just late enough. No matter how much I avoid or ignore it, it is a fact of life just the same as my ever-changing favorite song is. By talking about death, I was able to remember that it is not only this snatcher of love, this demonic force stealing the lives around me, but instead a natural and important step in the process of being.

Through my playlist endeavor, I have been able to learn more about my loved ones and their values, the things they hold close, and how they picture those loved things playing into their lives at the end. I’ve had discussions about how and when people consider their deaths, specific end-of-life requests (musical and otherwise) , how they think they’ll feel about this music when they are old and gray, and where they picture themselves in those final days. Death could come for any of us at any time, but through this playlist and surrounding discussions I’ve been able to envision it without as much terror and dread, and imagine the life I can lead without the constant fear of death buzzing around my head.

I am often asked about my own “before I die” song. The truth is that I’ve never totally been able to pick. Maybe I’m a lost cause, or maybe I’m just waiting for the perfect song: the one that reminds me how great it is to love and be loved, that captivates my entire soul, that feels the way it feels to be alive, that encapsulates the still moment that holds all the music that came before it, that empties and fills me all at once, the song that reminds me that when all of this beautiful, glorious madness comes to a close––it will be okay.






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