Tag Archive | funeral music

And God Said …

clock - 3 00And God said, “Marian, wake up.”

And I said, “But God, it’s only 3:00 a.m.”

And God replied, “Of course I know what time you think it is. But you have a lot of work to do before the funeral at 11:00 this morning.”

“O God, go away. More sleep is what I need most to be ready for the funeral. Let me sleep.”

“Marian, you can’t go back to sleep. You need to get on the Internet and find some music that you can play, that Mim can sing, and that the grandson of the woman who died can strum his guitar to. I’ll help you find the right arrangement to download.”

“O God, I really need some sleep. I’ll tell you what. If I’m still awake at 4:00 I’ll get up.”

That’s the way my day started a couple Saturdays ago. By 4:00 a.m., I was still wide awake, thinking about “Morning Has Broken.” So I got up, went to my computer, and searched for Youtube videos of that song to hear different arrangements. Then I went to musicnotes.com and downloaded the Cat Stevens version of “Morning Has Broken,” transposing it from the key of C up to E-flat to put it in a better range for Mim to sing.

Morning has broken 4 croppedLet me backtrack and tell you the whole story of what I’ve learned about how we should treat bullies (pushy, persistent people) who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

At church, the Sunday before the funeral, Pastor Jeff asked Mim and me if Mim could sing and I could play the organ for a funeral later that week. It would be either Friday or Saturday morning. The woman who died, had chosen the music she wanted – “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” for the congregation to sing, and either “In the Garden” or “Morning Has Broken” for the soloist to sing. The musical requirements should be easy and straightforward. We agreed to do it, and I suggested to Pastor Jeff that if the family was having a hard time choosing between the two possible solos, to suggest that Mim sing “In the Garden” and I would play “Morning Has Broken” as part of the prelude. We already had that music, so we wouldn’t have to find and learn anything new. If Mim needed to sing “Morning Has Broken” I would need to search for an arrangement that would work for us.

Later in the week Pastor Jeff called me to say the funeral would be on Saturday, and that the family wanted “Morning Has Broken” for the solo. I was a little disappointed, but I immediately started looking for a vocal solo with piano accompaniment for “Morning Has Broken.” Meanwhile, Mim started fighting off a cold, so I knew I had to come up with an arrangement that was well within her singing range, which is high soprano. I quickly concluded that my best option was to enter a fancy hymnal arrangement from the “Celebration Hymnal” into my SongWriter software, and use the software to transpose and tweak the music. The process took me about four hours, but both Mim and I were pleased with the result.

Motorola SmartphoneFriday morning, as I was out walking Floey, I got a phone call. (Mobile phones are not always a blessing.) The caller was “Jack,” the son who was assuming primary responsibility for planning his mother’s funeral. ”Jack” wanted his son “Alex” to play his guitar along with us on “Morning Has Broken.” Thinking about the style of the arrangement I had just created, I told him I didn’t think that would work out very well. But “Jack” knew it would, because of how beautifully both piano and guitar shared the accompaniment on the Cat Stevens version of the song. I tried to tell him that was not the version of the song we were planning to do, but after about ten minutes of conversation, I realized “Jack” was not going to take no for an answer. We ended the conversation with a compromise that we would all get together 45 minutes before the funeral to try playing together. If it worked, that’s what we would do in the funeral. If it didn’t sound good, we wouldn’t. At least we would have tried.

I knew a strumming guitar would not add anything of beauty to the arrangement Mim and I were doing, so I was pretty sure Alex wouldn’t be playing with us. But that got me thinking again about how pushy and persistent some people can be. In this case, I felt “Jack” was a bully who was going to get his way no matter what. He wanted his son to play his guitar with us, and that was that. I had suggested that his son play something else as a solo, but “Jack” couldn’t be budged from what he wanted.

“Jack” was acting just like a family member of another funeral I was organist for this summer. She wanted me to include waltzes and polkas in the preservice music for her mother’s funeral. I didn’t feel that was entirely appropriate for a funeral in a church, but I reluctantly agreed, and surrounded the “inappropriate” music with non-traditional arrangements of hymns that I considered more “appropriate.”

I talked with Mim about how I was feeling about these “bullies” who were adding such unnecessary complications to funerals. I wondered how I should treat people in this type of situation. What I think I was really asking was “How should I treat a bully who is grieving the loss of a loved one?”

Mim replied that she sometimes asks herself a very similar question, “How should I treat a bully who is dying?” Since we provide assisted living services in our home, we have often cared for people as they are dying. Occasionally, a patient or family member becomes quite unkind in the end, acting very much like a bully.

The MessageSo, how does God want us to treat these bullies? The Bible actually talks about that. The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words this way:

If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. …  I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. [Matthew 5:41-45]

That’s what I was thinking about when I went to bed Friday night. I guess after about five hours of rest, God decided to be more direct with me and wake me up. That’s when we had the conversation I described at the beginning of this post.

Mim and I got to the church about an hour before the funeral. We met “Jack” face to face for the first time, and then we met his son “Alex,” a recent high school grad, just back from a week at music camp – for rock guitar. I gave “Alex” a copy of the music I’d downloaded, and we went to a piano in the lower level of the church to see if we could play together. Within 15 minutes of practicing, we felt comfortable in going ahead with it.

It was a beautiful funeral. The church was packed. We did “Morning Has Broken” after the time of family sharing near the end of the service. The congregation was delighted to see and hear the grandson strumming “Morning Has Broken.” “Alex” felt good about playing for his grandmother. It was the kind of good-bye God wants us to share when a loved one goes home. It was peaceful and beautiful. I hate to say it, but it was the perfect music for that funeral.

I’m really glad God woke me up that morning. Now I know for sure how God wants us to treat pushy, persistent people who are grieving, and bullies who are dying, and friends and enemies of all kinds – to love them, to pray for them, and to let them bring out the best in me, not the worst, just like God does.

Morning has broken 5

Shopping for a Tombstone

Marian at organ-MessiahSo far this year I have had the privilege of playing the piano or organ for nine funerals. I typically play for between five and ten funerals a year – and it’s only July! In the 31 days from June 1 through July 1 of this year, I played for five of those funerals. Needless to say, my mind has been spending lots of time thinking about funerals lately.

Every funeral is different, and I try to match the music I play to the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Sometimes the person who died has planned their funeral and they have specific requests for what music they want at their funeral. Other times, family members have requests. Sometimes the pastor will offer suggestions. And sometimes I try to piece together what I know about the person and family and make a best guess at what music will be most comforting. One of these funerals was for a suicide and the family was in shock. One man had died suddenly, probably from a heart attack. One woman was close to 100 and had been in declining health for a long time. In all cases, loving friends and family were left behind and they needed to be comforted.

musical notes cartoonThe musical requests for some of the funerals in June were rather unusual. Besides the popular funeral hymns of “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was asked to play polkas, waltzes, and folk songs.

After watching families struggle over what should and should not be included in their loved one’s funeral, I decided I need to add another item to my personal to-do list: to plan my own funeral. Hopefully, I will get that done before the end of the year. At least that’s my target date.

Then, one day last week, I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book that I should think about what epitaph I’d like to see on my gravestone. Carter wrote, “I’m sure that most of us have given at least some thought to what we want inscribed on our gravestone…. Our lives need to have the right purpose. We need to look upon our service to Christ as the greatest achievement of all. And when we start thinking this way, we’ll start shaping our lives differently.” [Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, ©2011, Zondervan]

Archie Monuments wideThat reminded me of a day in 1987, several weeks after my mom had died. My dad and Mim and I drove to Archie Monuments in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 25 miles from Cambridge. We were going shopping for a tombstone for my mom’s (and ultimately my dad’s) grave. Before we left on this shopping expedition I called my brother and my sister to see if they had any preferences for style, color, or anything else. Since tombstones aren’t something you shop for every day, neither of them had put much thought into it, so they had no preferences for us to consider.

blank tombstones croppedMy dad had put some thought into it. When we got to Archie Monuments, he picked out his preferred style right away, an upright granite stone with a smooth, curved top. Most of the stones at that time had coarse chiseled tops, but he was adamant about wanting a smooth polished top, and he explained why. He wanted bird droppings to be washed off by the rain. We couldn’t argue with that, so the first decision was made. I completed the style selection by choosing a very dark gray-colored granite. I thought a really dark stone with just a few lighter gray flecks of color would be striking, and actually beautiful.

But then came the hard part. What information should be included on the monument? The name KORTH would be on the top. On the lower left side would be ELSIE with her birth and death dates, and on the lower right side would be CARL with his birth and death dates. No middle names or initials would be included, but exact birthdates would be included, not just the years. My dad was as adamant on dates as he was on the smooth top surface of the stone. I have no idea why he thought it was important for future generations to know exactly what day he died. But it was important to him, so that was what we specified.

2015-07-13 Korth tombstone 1With the factual information and monument style determined, we moved on to the more creative design work. Fairly quickly we decided to have a pair of praying hands etched on my mom’s side because she firmly believed in turning to God in prayer for every concern she had in life. On my dad’s side we selected a flower growing up beside a cross as a reference to his being a farmer who trusted in God.

Then for the hardest part of all – choosing an epitaph. Fortunately, the consultant at Archie’s gave us a book of sample epitaphs to page through for ideas. The three of us finally agreed on “I know that my redeemer lives.” I think my dad was pretty indifferent to the words, but he didn’t have any better suggestion, and he was tired and wanted to go home. We had already spent about three hours making the decisions up to that point. But both Mim and I were confident that those words summarized the most important aspect of my mom’s life – she had a very strong faith, and her belief in God was the most important part of her life. And Dad would just have to live (and rest forever) with the epitaph we primarily selected for Mom.

I chose the font for the text on my own. I don’t remember its name, but it’s very legible and looks dignified. I also asked for the shadow effect in the engraving. We were finally ready to go home. Shopping for a tombstone is not an easy job. All three of us were exhausted, but pleased with our choices.

I don’t think I’ll go as far as designing a tombstone for Mim and me by the end of this year. I’ll be happy if I get my funeral planned. But thanks to Jimmy Carter’s urging, I might start thinking about what I might like our tombstone to look like, and what I would like it to reflect about my life and Mim’s life and our life together. I guess maybe this is something Mim and I have to work on together. Maybe it will be a job for next winter.

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents' tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It's the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words "I love to tell the story. Below Paul's name is engraved, "Local preacher over 40 years" and below Sarah's name is engraved "Church organist over 50 years."

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents’ tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It’s the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words “I love to tell the story.” Below Paul’s name is engraved, “Local preacher over 40 years” and below Sarah’s name is engraved “Church organist over 50 years.” The stone tells the story of their lives very nicely.

My Musical Destiny

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Seventeen years ago, Mim and I created a new business called Korth-Jacobson, LLC. Within that business structure we have done lots of different things – from being a bed and breakfast to selling real estate; from doing strategic planning and project management for small businesses to providing music in churches and a pub and other venues; from hosting spiritual retreats to caring for the elderly in our home. All of these businesses have been based out of our home. For the past 12 years, one of our businesses has been Country Comforts Assisted Living. We currently care for two 94-year-olds in our home, and we also coordinate the care of a third almost 94-year-old who lives with a neighbor.

By the very nature of this caregiving business, we are working 24/7. Whenever we are at home, we are responsible for being sure the needs of our residents are met. Whenever we are not at home, we need to be sure another caregiver is present to meet these needs. We have finally realized that to meet our own need for a break, we must take some time off, and that means we need to be away from our work environment – away from home. Lately we’ve established the schedule of taking Tuesdays and Thursdays off from about 1:00 or 1:30 pm till about 8:00 pm. Our most usual destinations on these days are Woodmans, Costco, and occasionally Trader Joe’s for groceries; Menards for hardware items; Farm & Fleet for dog treats and toys and for clothes when they go on sale (really!); and resale shops for books, clothes, gifts, and other bargains we “need.” Occasionally we’ll go to a movie if we don’t have any shopping that needs to be done.

A couple weeks ago we redeemed a gift certificate from a good friend and went to see the matinee performance at the Fireside Theater of “All Shook Up.”  We had a wonderful time listening to all those Elvis songs from the 50s and 60s, and laughing about the inter-racial mix-ups and mistaken sexual identity antics. Hearing those Elvis songs from our grade school and high school years brought back one of my childhood memories.

Lowery Organ 2

Lowery electronic organ, state of the art using vacuum tube technology in 1957.

My sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started giving me piano lessons before I started school. I’ve  enjoyed playing the piano ever since. When I was nine, my mom bought a Lowery electronic organ. She had grown up playing a reed pump organ, and she missed playing an organ. A piano wasn’t as much fun for her, although she played it some. When the new electronic organ was delivered to our house I was as excited as I could be. I got to take the ten free lessons that came with the organ from Ward Brodt in Madison, and then I continued taking lessons from our church organist – both piano and organ. But from my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt I learned that any kind of music can be played on an organ – not just hymns. I had to walk through the print music department at the store to get to the lesson rooms, and I always browsed the music on my way out of the store. Most of my allowance was spent on music books with titles like “The Best Hits of 1962 for Easy Organ.” I acquired quite a collection and learned to play songs as varied as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

One Thursday morning when I was about 10 or 11, (I know it was Thursday because that was my mom’s day off) Eleanor Jarlsberg, one of my mom’s friends from church, came over for morning coffee. Mom and Eleanor were sitting at the dining room table drinking their coffee, and I was in the living room playing the organ just for fun, not practicing. I was going through my latest “Greatest Hits…” book. I was playing mostly the slower and quieter songs so that I wouldn’t disturb their conversation in the next room. When I finished playing the Elvis’ hit “Love Me Tender,” Eleanor asked me what hymn that was – she really liked it. When I told her it was an Elvis Presley song – not a hymn, she laughed and laughed, and I felt kind of embarrassed.

That’s when I began to put two and two together to understand that my destiny was to be a gospel pianist/organist, regardless of the type of music I tried to play. I’m not the gospel pianist that my Aunt Edith was who added all kinds of embellishments all over the keyboard. I’m not very good at that. I’m the kind of gospel music player that can play very expressively by varying volume and where on the keyboard I’m playing – high or low – and by sometimes holding a note a little too long to build the tension. I do simple stuff to draw the listener into the emotional message of the song.

Over the years as I learned more classical music on the piano and more traditional hymns and hymn arrangements on the organ, I tried to become more classical in my style of playing. But that was never as much fun for me. But then I noticed that Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” can easily morph into “Jesus Loves Me.” And that “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” can weave itself into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

Beer Barrel Polka sheet musicOne morning last week I had a musical breakthrough. A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning her funeral, and she asked me if I would be willing to play for it. Of course, I said sure. Then she said she wanted the funeral to be a joyous time of celebration. One of the songs she wanted me to play was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” I happen to know the song because that’s one of the songs my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt taught me. But, I’ve felt uncomfortable with that song for a funeral ever since she made the request. My friend died last week. As I was mulling over whether nor not I should play the song, it suddenly dawned on me – if I can morph “Clair de Lune” into “Jesus Loves Me” I certainly can morph “The Beer Barrel Polka” into “Jesus Loves Me.” So I did.

Yup. That’s my destiny. Regardless of what type of music I try to play, gospel is what’s going to come out. God made me that way, and I’ve finally come to whole-heartedly accept it.

Thanks, Nancy, for helping me learn that lesson.

Nancy Koplin cropped

Nancy Koplin, a good friend who helped me find “Jesus Loves Me” in “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

The Misfit Funeral Organist – Part 2

“When in doubt, leave it out.” That was the advice of the soloist for the funeral last week. She teaches music at some college in Minnesota. I took her advice to heart.

For her solo, Mendelssohn’s “O Rest in the Lord,” I learned the piano accompaniment just fine, and I didn’t need to leave anything out.

fingers stretching on piano 3But I was glad to wholeheartedly heed her advice for the violin solo, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The violinist almost always had the melody, so I took the liberty of leaving out lots of the extra notes I was supposed to play on the piano. I figured it was better to keep up with him than to slow us both down by trying to stretch my short fingers into awkward contortions just to plunk out all the “right” notes. I always played at least one note with him, just not all the notes on the page. We started and ended together, and in between, I supported the melody with enough notes that the piece still sounded like Bach.

I used the same principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – for selecting pre-service music for the funeral.

Oakwood Organ - full viewThe day before the funeral, I went to the nursing home chapel to acquaint myself with the pipe organ. It was a small tracker organ, apparently modeled after the organ Martin Luther himself played. It had two manuals and a standard pedal board. It had vertical rows of three stops for each manual, one pedal stop, and three couplers. It looked like a nice little organ that would be fun to play.

Except for one thing, which I discovered when I climbed up on the bench to start playing. There was no expression pedal. That wouldn’t seem like a major omission, but for me, it was. I’m short. When I stand up straight, I’m almost five feet tall. When I sit perched on an organ bench with my feet dangling, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. To keep my balance, I rest my right foot on the expression pedal whenever I’m not using that foot to play a pedal on the pedal board. With no expression pedal, I had no foot rest to help me keep my balance. I had to try to sit very still. Even reaching to the far right or the far left with my right or left hand to pull out a stop threatened my equilibrium.

Hymns - portraitThat made it easy for me to make a decision about what kind of music to play for the prelude and postlude. I wasn’t about to challenge myself with any fancy arrangements or classical music that would put me at risk of losing my balance and falling off the bench. I quickly decided to go with a selection of hymns. I asked the violinist (the grandson of the deceased) about Hazel’s ethnic and religious background to try to identify what types of hymns might have been some of her favorites, as well as the favorites of the people who would be at the funeral. Since she was Swedish, I started with “Children of the Heavenly Father” and played for about 15 minutes, progressing through a dozen hymns, ending with “Beautiful Savior.”

As I was selecting the hymns to include in my sequence, I tried to line up hymns in related keys so that there would be a natural progression to each hymn. As I was looking for a classic hymn in the key of G, I came across “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” First I included it, but then I took it out because I thought it might sound too “joyful” for a funeral. I followed the principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – so I removed it from the sequence. If I were selecting the hymns today, I would make a different decision. As part of my daily devotional reading this year I’m going through a new hymnal, mentally singing one or two hymns each morning. Today my hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The words of the first verse are:

bird singing 1Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.

How appropriate those words are for a funeral!

For the postlude I played “Go, My Children, with My Blessing” and a confident, fancy (but NO PEDAL) arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” – something I often play for funeral postludes.

Marian at Messiah organ 5

That’s me, sitting much more comfortably on my home church’s organ bench.

Despite the challenges for me in playing for the funeral last week, I guess I can take out the word “misfit” from my role as funeral organist. I need to thank the soloist for giving me the license to “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Even with simplifications, God’s gift of music always gives comfort.

And since I didn’t fall off the organ bench, I still really like to play for funerals. But I definitely prefer organs with a foot rest – like Messiah’s. Or, a nice piano.

 

 

 

Funerals and the Misfit Organist

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.

Mom-Dad on stump

Mom & Dad never agreed on funerals.

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.

Gary Kenseth grave stoneThe 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.

Marian at Messiah organ 4Over 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.
     [Khalil Gibran]