That’s me. The misfit funeral organist. I’m not sure which order the words should be in. They’re all nouns linked together to convey one image – me as an organist who likes to play for funerals, even though I shouldn’t. I’m a misfit. I should avoid funerals, at all cost, just like my mom did.
In all my growing up years, I attended only two funerals – my Grandma’s when I was in high school, and my Uncle Art’s when I was in college. For all the other family friends and relatives that died during those years, my dad went to the funerals, my mom didn’t. She hated funerals. I think the main reason for this was that she always cried – even if the deceased wasn’t someone close to her, and that embarrassed her.
I can remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and dad about going to someone’s funeral. My dad thought they both should go to it. My mom was adamant that she was not going to go. My dad said, “When you die, probably no one will show up for your funeral.” My mom replied, “I don’t care. I won’t be there either.” So, my dad went to all the funerals by himself. Hence, I didn’t grow up going to many funerals.
The first funeral I was asked to be the organist for was my cousin Gary’s. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago. I was pretty nervous. I had very little experience as an observer of what organists played for funerals. Furthermore, I was afraid that I would cry so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the music. I even asked my doctor for some pills to keep me calm. I took one of the pills the day before the funeral to test its effect on me, and I decided the pill relaxed me too much. I concluded that if I took a pill before the funeral I’d probably play lots of wrong notes and I’d play them very slowly.
Instead, my Aunt Edith (Gary’s mother and the gospel pianist and organist I’ve written about before on this blog) helped me by giving me a long list of music to play as pre-service music. That got my attention focused on the music. She had listed lots of old hymns and gospel songs. For the recessional, she wanted me to play a spiritual that Gary had really enjoyed singing when he was still in school, “Do Lord.”
I learned a lot about the role of music in funerals from this first experience as a funeral organist. Pre-service music does more than just cover up the silence (or the conversation) while people wait for the service to begin. The music can bring back memories. It can draw attention to how much God loves us. It can comfort us. The hymns we sing together as a congregation remind us that we are a family, sharing the loss of someone we love, but sharing our memories and our hopes, as well. The special music often sung or played by family members or close friends is a gift for everyone present, a glimpse into the music the loved one liked best. The recessional moves us on with life, knowing that God is still with us and will never leave us.
Over the next several years, I put that lesson to good use. I became the organist of a small, aging congregation in Cambridge, and played for many funerals every year – once even three funerals in one week. My mom would have never understood how I could play for all those funerals. I’ll admit that sometimes I get a little teary, but a quick wipe with a Kleenex clears up my eyes enough to see the music.
I’ve learned to really enjoy playing for funerals. Music can be an incredible comfort to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I feel privileged to help provide that sense of peacefulness.
So why am I a “misfit funeral organist”? And why am I writing about it now?
This week I’m having second thoughts about everything I’ve learned about playing for funerals. I’ve been asked to play for a funeral for someone I don’t know, in a nursing home chapel where I’ve never even seen the organ. I’ll have to accompany both a concert violinist and a vocalist who teaches music at a college in Minnesota. I guess I feel a bit intimidated.
I wish Aunt Edith were here right now to make up the list of what to play for pre-service music. I spent all afternoon on Sunday thinking about that, paging through books and books of classical music as well as hymnals. I even asked the pastor if I was a misfit for this funeral. He said I wasn’t, but I think he might have said that because he didn’t want to find another organist.
Well, I’ve finally come around to my last resort – where I should have started. I’m praying for God’s help in selecting and preparing the music. And I’m beginning to remember what I’ve learned about the role of music in funerals – comfort. Now I’m focused again on the gift of music God has given us.
Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life
bringing peace, abolishing strife.