Tag Archive | funerals

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.

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]