"What came first, the music or the misery? People
worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent
videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take
them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands,
literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection,
pain, misery and loss."
- Rob, High Fidelity (2000)
You may have heard the word before, but it's more likely
you've heard an actual dirge.
In the simplest terms, a dirge is a song or hymn of grief
and lamentation. It is a song especially intended to accompany
a funeral or provide a memorial to the deceased.
The slow, solemn, and mournful aspects of dirges make it
no surprise that they would be so commonly associated with
funerals. The word, itself, is derived from the Latin phrase
Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectus tuo viam meam meaning
"Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God."
This phrase is the first part of a section in the Office
of the Dead, a prayer cycle in the Roman Catholic Church
said for the soul of a deceased. Dirge thus came to refer
to this office, developing two important connotations: to
direct, or rather to lead to Heaven, and a piece for the
And the combination makes sense. The dirge is a song for
the dead which judging by the popular and classical dirges
like "O Death," "Lyke-Wake Dirge," and
"Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire" tell the tales
of death and the soul's crossing over into Heaven.
While the term may have originated in the Roman Catholic
Church, dirges have been utilized throughout various times
and cultures. Around 800 BC, the Greeks displayed an extensive
culture of music and coined the term threnody, a different
term for the same idea of a dirge. In 625 BC, the Ancient
Romans also created the term nenia to describe a funeral
dirge chanted alongside flutes.
The dirge, itself, also shifted in time to become a sort
of poetry. Many poets wrote dirges without any music, and
still others wrote dirges that would later, even posthumously,
be put to music. If the mournful, memorializing sentiment
was there, so were the aspects of the dirge.
While some great poets, like Shakespeare, created literal
dirges, still others would write of mourning in a broader
sense. Take for instance Tennyson's "In Memoriam"
written in memory of beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam.
While not technically a dirge poem due to its wide focus,
it undeniably shares in dirge-like characteristics of pain,
mourning, and passing on.
With so many cultures and time periods using dirges, or
more universally speaking, songs of mourning, it is no surprise
that we have an array of similar terms that refer to the
same basic type of song and music. Words like elegy, funeral
march, jeremiad, lament, oppari, requiem, and threnody all
share the same basic principles: music to mourn.
While dirges are often times found within the Catholic church,
they are only the most classic and formal types of dirges.
But dirges are also seen in other funeral services, where
they lament but are not strictly hymnal. In New Orleans,
a tradition known as the jazz funeral developed with music
as one of the focuses for mourning.
In African Tribes, particularly those of Kawu, dirges are
used for public mourning prior to a burial but have recently
seen a decline due to the transition back to more classic
hymns. However, since dirges are written by real people
to memorialize real people and real feelings, they often
convey more apt portrayals of personal feelings of loss
and mourning than the usual hymns.
Thus, in today's culture the dirge may be defined as and
continually identified with churches and funerals, but it's
not strictly that. In a broader sense, it is a song of mourning.
Can it be played at a funeral? Yes. Is it often? Yes. But,
it mostly is used to mourn in whatever sense it may.
'Lightning Crashes' by Live refers to a death, yet mentions
the birth of a child, loss with a gain of unknown quantity.
"Lightning crashes, an old mother dies
Her intentions fall to the floor
The angel closes her eyes, the confusion that was hers
Belongs now, to the baby down the hall"
Continued on Page
PCM's Pop Music Dirges List