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It's The Perfect Music For A Funeral

Musician David Young is a new-age artist who records the sort of atmospheric music you'd hear in spas or doctor's offices.

For 25 years, he's made a decent living at it. Young says he's sold over a million CDs.

And while you might hear his music getting a massage or in your doctor's waiting room, there's one place you might not expect to hear it. Young tells this story:

"So there was this lady, who, for like six months, was calling my office," he says. "And she only wanted to talk to me."

But the woman would call on weekends, and Young was often on the road.

"Finally, after six months, she called on a day when I happened to be there. She was all excited. She said, 'The reason why I'm calling is I want to make sure I have proper licensing to use one of your songs at a funeral.'"

The song? Young's recorder- and reverb-laced interpretation of Amazing Grace. He said, sure, she could use it. If she wanted to fax something over, he could sign it.

"When is the funeral?" he asked.

"I'm not really sure," said the woman.

"Well," Young said, "Do you know who the funeral's for?"

"Yes," the woman said. "It's for my funeral."

Unconventional Distribution

The woman was actually an anomaly. Most of the time, when Young's music winds up in funeral homes, it's because a funeral director has purchased it from Dodge Company, one of the largest funeral supply companies in the world.

Craig Caldwell, a vice president at the company, first heard Young's music at a convention in Chicago six years ago.

"As we were leaving for the day, we came across a small stand that was actually selling a lot of new-age type of products," he says. "And they were playing some of David's music."

Something about the sound of Young's music made Caldwell think it would lend itself well to a funeral home.

"It really has a softness to it that can evoke a variety of different memories," he says. "[It can] make somebody remember a particular time and point that they shared with the person that's passed away."

So Caldwell got in touch with Young.

"And he wanted to make my music available for the funeral homes that they were selling all products to," Young says.

Soon he was attending funeral home conventions, selling his CDs alongside more typical vendors.

"Oh, gosh, like embalming tools," Young remembers. "Caskets. There were caskets everywhere. Things that you don't really want to have to look at all."

Music Or Muzak?

But the music was selling.

A few years later, writer Nicole Pasulka noticed an ad for David Young's music in a funeral trade magazine. The tagline? "Set the right tone for your funeral."

"It automatically caught my eye," she says. "I think it would anyone's."

It struck Pasulka, who wrote about David Young for The Morning News, that many of David Young's songs were popular ones that an older audience might know, like "Scarborough Fair" or "Con Te Partiro" — but put through a kind of filter.

"Softened, even. Even more reassuring. Less complex," she says. "But I think what he's selling is this filter."

And he's still selling it. Young says sales fluctuate, but they make a nice supplement he usually does with massage parlors and doctor's offices.

"I think that the reason they want to have music in a funeral home is that the silence lets our mind just be free to run around with whatever thoughts that we have," he says. "And if somebody's in a funeral home, they're very likely to be having sad thoughts."

Does that mean Young is selling music? Or Muzak?

"There's that quote, 'Muzak fills the deadly silence,'" Pasulka says. "I think there's a thing about it being quiet. And we don't even notice it anymore. And in a funeral home, if silence does equal death, then silence is the last thing we want."

Young bristles at the comparison to Muzak. He says he feels lucky to provide background music for such an occasion. And the job takes him interesting places.

"People ask, 'What is it like playing at a funeral convention?'" he says. "I'll just say, it was a really dead show."

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Brent Baughman
Brent Baughman is a senior producer in the Programming division at NPR, where he works on new and existing podcasts.