by Anthony Antolini, Music Director
St. John Baptist, Thomaston
originally published in the October 2015 edition of The Antiphon, St. John’s monthly newsletter
We’ve had a remarkable number of parishioners pass away in recent months. I cannot remember a time when I’ve played so many funerals in close succession. All this has reminded us of the importance of filling out the Funeral Wishes form. Without this form, the family, Fr. Peter, and I have to guess what hymns and organ voluntaries would be appropriate for the departed. You know much better than we what you’d like, so please fill out the form! To make the chore less daunting I’ve decided to devote this month’s column to some observations that may help you with your decisions.
First, let’s agree that making these decisions is a lot more entertaining than writing a will. And yet it’s a kind of will because we have in writing what you think a proper funeral would be for you. Secondly, bear in mind that you can update the form if you change your mind. So, let’s get started.
Funerals don’t need to be lugubrious. Choosing hymns you don’t like to sing because they’re somber is clearly a mistake. So perhaps the first thing to do is to make a list of your favorite hymns. Some may be able to do this by memory. Others may need to borrow a hymnal and look through the Index of First Lines (page 954 and following) for ideas.
Don’t leave your family and friends out of this process! Picture that they will be the ones who sing and listen to the music you choose. They may have favorites that would mean a great deal to them at the time of your memorial. Another approach might be to share your completed Funeral Wishes form with them before handing it in at the office. They may have other ideas to suggest or opinions you need to know about.
The Hymnal 1982 has hymns categorized by topic. A short section is entitled “Burial” and is not where I’d suggest you start. It begins with Hymn #354 “Into paradise may angels lead you.” This is a lovely plainsong translated from the Latin In paradisum deducant angeli. In my nearly twenty-five years at St. John’s we’ve never sung it. Unless you love Gregorian chant or are a choral musician, it’s unlikely such a hymn would appeal to you. And here we see another important consideration:
Don’t choose hymns for your funeral that nobody has ever heard before! Those who attend your service won’t sing them.
Occasionally, people want the Commendation (Give rest, O Christ, to your servant…”) chanted. This beautiful Kievan chant is Hymn #355. The words are in the Book of Common Prayer and are usually read by the priest. But if chanted, the melody is from the Eastern Orthodox Memorial Service and is usually sung by a choir in four parts. At St. John’s I usually chant it alone. An interesting alternative to this is Hymn #358 – a rhymed version of the Commendation Prayer set to the familiar tune “Russia.” Most people know this tune to the words “God the Omnipotent” (Hymn #569). Somebody ought to try this!
For one funeral this summer (where Peter and I had to choose the music) I decided to sing an unaccompanied song that is in the hymnal but seldom sung: It’s Hymn #692 “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest.’” The melody is familiar to classical music lovers from the orchestral piece Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The words of the hymn are by Horatius Bonar and have no connection to the melody by Thomas Tallis, but they fit a funeral beautifully.
Here are some hymns from the Hymnal 1982 that are frequently sung at funerals. Though not in the “Burial” section of the hymnal they are very suitable:
Hymn #208 “Alleluia! The strife is o’er, the battle done” (Easter)
Hymn #287 “For all the saints, who from their labors rest” (All Saints)
Hymn #410 “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”
Hymn #508 “Breathe on me, breath of God” (Frequently sung at confirmation.)
Hymn #517 “How lovely is thy dwelling place” (Psalm 84 paraphrased)
Hymn #645 or #646 “The King of love my shepherd is” (Psalm 23 paraphrased)
Hymn #655 “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end”
Hymn #657 “Love divine, all loves excelling”
Hymn #680 “O God our help in ages past” (Psalm 90 paraphrased)
Hymn #376 “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” (Hymn to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th)
There are also some appropriate hymns to consider in the green hymnal, Wonder, Love & Praise (WLP):
WLP #810 “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord” (AKA “On eagle’s wings.”)
WLP #811 “You shall cross the barren desert”
And the black, red and green hymnal, Lift Every Voice & Sing (LEVAS) has some stirring hymns from the African-American tradition. Here are some favorites:
LEVAS #60 “How great thou art”
LEVAS #103 “Steal away to Jesus”
LEVAS #106 “Precious Lord, take my hand”
LEVAS #181 “Amazing Grace”
Of course, those who do fill out the Funeral Wishes form sometimes do request hymns that strike the rest of us as dated or even unpopular. A recent funeral featured two hymns that I’ve been told by other members of the congregation never to play! They are “Onward, Christian soldiers” and “Rock of Ages.” A funeral is a special occasion and if the departed wanted them, we sing them!
Other musical parts of the service offer an opportunity to include music that isn’t in the hymnal but may be a personal favorite. These are the prelude and the postlude, played on the organ. Since Fr. Peter began promoting the Funeral Wishes form I’ve deliberately played several pieces that are excellent choices for these parts of the service. Here is a brief list of such music:
J.S. Bach: Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Jean Sibelius: Theme from Finlandia
Antonin Dvorák: Theme from New World Symphony (“Going home”)
Gabriel Fauré: Pie Jesu from Requiem
Johannes Brahms: O world, I must now leave thee
Georg Frederick Handel: Come unto Him from Messiah
Domenico Zipoli: Festival Postlude
Perhaps you have a favorite composer but can’t think of what he/she wrote that would work well on the organ. That’s not a problem! Just list the composer’s name on the form and I’ll try to find something by that composer that would fit a prelude or a postlude.
Funny things do happen with regard to funeral music, usually unintentionally. One family requested the mardi gras tune “When the saints go marching in” as a postlude. I didn’t feel it was something that would turn out particularly well on the organ so I used the melody in an improvisation that led into Brahms’s “O world, I must now leave thee.” No one complained.
One “Funeral Wishes” form specified a piece of music that required a concerto for orchestra and harp soloist. The funeral was in a matter of days. There was no budget for an orchestra or harpist. I played something else by the composer of the requested concerto.
In planning your funeral music please try to be practical and realize that your music director often has to put this service together in just a few days. If in doubt about something, let’s chat about it. I welcome such discussions and would enjoy talking to you about your wishes. I’ll play pieces that you think you’d like to include. We might come up with a really splendid service!
Finally, if you’d rather not deal with details, please just write on the Funeral Wishes form what you really don’t want and then state, “Let the music director decide.” When Yogi Berra was asked what his burial wishes were, he replied, “I don’t know. Why don’t you surprise me?”