Funeral Music

Kathryn wrote about the music at her ordination, and I commented saying I might choose the music from my ordination for my funeral, too.

Naturally, that idiosyncratic notion begged the question: what in the world did they play/sing at your ordination, Songbird?

First of all, three great hymns with fantastic bass lines that have the potential to inspire roof-raising singing.

The processional was Forward Through the Ages, with its fabulous tune, St. Gertrude (of Onward Christian Soldiers fame). We’re not allowed to like all that militaristic metaphor anymore, but I don’t think anyone has ever written a more stirring hymn tune. Now, I am determinedly inclusive in my language choices when I write prayers and sermons. And the war metaphors are not even tempting, because I don’t think that way. But, sweeties, the music is moving; it moves you forward, or onward, depending on your taste. This particular hymn expresses the idea of the striving together toward the goal, reminiscent of one of my favorite passages of scripture (and my only favorite from the epistles), Philippians 3:14. The hymn makes it okay that the goal is beyond this life, which I hope would be vaguely comforting to those who were grieving.

The second hymn was a favorite that I never knew until I moved to Maine, For All the Saints. The words mean a great deal to me, but the tune turned me on to Ralph Vaughn-Williams, and for that I am eternally grateful. This has war language, but somehow it’s okay to still sing it. I can’t sing the verse below without weeping:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

There are about 11 verses, actually, but most hymnals only give you five or six. Singing it evokes a feeling of being in something together–so Congregational!! It’s also both wrenching and comforting, a good one for the mourner in denial. I always want them to weep at a funeral; I feel it’s my job to make it so. My brother didn’t cry after our mother died of metastatic melanoma at age 67. He got through days of welcoming people into our parents’ home, making of arrangements, all that without a tear. But God bless the ministers who did my mother’s service, because about ten minutes in I felt him start to shake next to me, and glanced over to see a big tear rolling down his cheek, unhidden by his dark, dark glasses. It was not to be the last.

There was a Communion Hymn, but we’ll blip over that at the funeral.

The anthem was sung by a pick-up group from the church’s excellent 50-member choir. Believe me, that was an annoying development, given that I had sung in the choir for many years, but the church’s new senior pastor was having his installation a couple of weeks later, and the choir director felt he could not insist on two extra engagements so close to their big All Saints concert; I’m not grumbling about it anymore, but it was very disappointing at the time. Anyway, 15 or so, some of them good friends and some of them just a wonderful surprise, spent extra time rehearsing a favorite piece of mine from the Sacred Harp repertoire. It’s called Ten Thousand Charms, an incredibly rousing, rough-hewn composition by Hal Kunkel, using the words below:

Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Calls for songs of loudest praise.

I will rise and go to Jesus,
He’ll embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Lo! There are ten thousand charms.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount-O fix me on it-
Mount of God’s unchanging love.

It’s hard to describe the effect this piece of music had on me when I first heard it at the New England Sacred Harp Convention of 1997 or 1998, in the chapel at Wesleyan University. It went through me. 200 voices singing a harsh a capella is pretty impressive to begin with, and most of the music was from the 18th century or early 19th. Somehow Hal captured all that frontier energy in his composition and a passion for God at the same time. Singing Sacred Harp was a brief phase in my life, but it came in my early divorced years and helped bring me through the dark times. I don’t know who would sing it, but I keep a copy of the composition in my piano bench. (Make a note of that if you should read this, kids.) The setting of the chorus is nothing like the solemn wistful tune of Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (which has the same refrain), rather it literally rises up, with the high notes on “rise” and “Je”-sus and “arms.” Wow. I’ll never forget that day. The song literally raised goose bumps on my arms.

The closing hymn that day would definitely be on my funeral wish-list, because it emphasizes that we are never alone, an important reminder on a sad day. How Firm a Foundation is another great old hymn that can rock the room. We sang it at Small Church on the day of my installation as pastor. The room was full of clergy, and Lord knows we mostly all love to sing, and most of us are pretty good at it, too. That was the best singing I have heard in my church, with the possible exception of the day we hosted our Association meeting. Of all the last verses of all the best hymns, this has the best one:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

The emphasis in the music on each first syllable of “ne”-ver is what whips me into spiritual shape every time I hear it.

The service closed with the choir singing God Be With You Til We Meet Again, set to the lovely Vaughn-Williams tune, Randolph. It was a frequent closing piece for the choir in the years I was a member, and it represented my farewell to them and to the church that had been my home for fifteen years, in which two of my children had been baptized and in the garden of which the ashes of my lost child were buried. I would love it at my funeral for the same sorts of reasons–its assurance that we are cared for by God as sheep by a shepherd, and that we will meet again.

I suppose these would seem odd choices for a funeral, but perhaps not for mine.