Last week was unusual. Between Tuesday and Friday, I played for three funerals. The first, a funeral for a paramedic killed in the line of duty—over 500 people were in attendance, mostly other EMS workers. The second, a very small funeral for one of our elderly members. The third, another small funeral for our oldest member who passed away at 103 years young.
The point of this post is to highlight the stark contrasts between each of these funerals and the importance of sensitivity to the congregation’s needs on the part of the musician. All three funerals selected standard funeral fare for their music. For the first, “Lift High the Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” All three are very easy to learn if one is not familiar with them, but despite the 500+ people in attendance, there was very limited singing going on. It was clear that this group was either not a predominantly church-going crowd, or that they were self-conscious or otherwise inhibited in their ability to sing out. Regardless, it forced me to be more deliberate in my leading of the hymns, limiting the variety of my registrations (the combinations of various sounds on the organ to produce characteristic textures and timbres), and making sure I didn’t play any verses too softly. However, because of the nature of this funeral, I thought it appropriate to introduce Amazing Grace by playing a complete verse on the organ with a sound that emulated bagpipes, evoking the long-standing tradition in the United States of playing bagpipes at police and fire department funerals. Lastly, where I normally play 15-20 minutes of prelude before a funeral, the number of people that needed to be seated in an orderly fashion for this funeral required that I play an hour’s worth.
The second funeral was similar in that the congregation that assembled was not one with uninhibited singing running through its veins, and adding to the challenge was a very small congregation at that—probably in the 40-50 range, and in a sanctuary that seats 450. Acoustics were not on their side; rather than lead from the organ, which is tucked around the corner in a transept, I led from the piano and used a microphone so I could serve as a song leader. Acoustically, I don’t prefer the piano when confident singing is required as the organ can sustain notes indefinitely and plays louder, but it was a trade-off that enabled me to sing with a microphone in my face and also hear as best I could to adjust my playing on-the-fly as needed. Again, standard funeral repertoire was chosen here: “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “Beautiful Savior,” making the hymns as familiar as possible for those in attendance. Here, bagpipe-esque introductions were not feasible as I was leading from the piano, and would have been inappropriate for this crowd.
The third funeral was attended by a family with strong singers in its ranks, though the total attendance was the same as the previous: 40-50. In fact, at the conclusion of the service, the family got up and performed Peter Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You And Keep You.” With this in mind, I was able to vary my registrations and also dropped out on a verse of “Children of the Heavenly Father” to let the family and others in attendance experience the rare joy of congregational a cappella singing, knowing they were more than capable of holding their own while the organ disappeared. Contrast this with 500+ people in the first example who needed all of the instrumental support I could provide.
All of this is to say that no one way of leading congregational singing is appropriate in all times and places. Especially in the case of funerals, one is dealing with a gathered assembly of diverse backgrounds, musical skills, and spiritual walks. It is a group of people who may never meet again yet who are thrust together in a single place and time and who must be led in their liturgical and musical journey in such a way as to form them into one voice, one Body of Christ. With funerals, one does not have the luxuries that come with leading worship week in and week out for an established community of faith. Such work, therefore, requires sensitivity and awareness on the part of the musician and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances and needs. It is this side of the church musician’s work that demands from them a level of pastoral care that they are not always equipped or prepared to provide. Nevertheless, it is the reality of congregational ministry, and church musicians will do well to understand these subtle and nuanced dynamics.