Monday, November 06, 2006

The problem with funerals (or, Why I Love All Souls Day)

The problem with funeral liturgies is that we give families (whether they want it or not) the responsibility for planning readings and music, which very few have any experience with or knowledge of at all.

So, the end result is that people choose songs (and readings) that look familiar. I am playing one shortly with “Lift Up Your Hearts” as an opener, and we all can name other familiar funeral favorites - “Here I Am, Lord”, “On Eagle’s Wings”, etc.

I am aware that the Order of Christian Funerals tells us to do precisely this, to plan the readings and music with the families. But I think this practice is due for a good, hard look.

I really looked forward to All Souls, admittedly because a couple of my own works were in the plan:

Entrance: my English introit hymn of the “Requiem æternam”, sung to ST. COLUMBA
Psalm: my setting of the Ps. 25 from the Lectionary
Offertory: Be Not Afraid (NOT my choice - more on this later)
Eucharistic prayers: Mass of Creation (might as well)
Communion: my responsorial setting of “Lux æterna”, in English
Recessional: “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”, sung to ST. COLUMBA

I don’t mean to pat myself too much on the back here (NB: a committee did screen all this), but I really felt like the Entrance and Communion texts, being explicit prayers for the deceased, just “fit” better and made the occasion a much more special one than had we sung “On Eagle’s Wings” or some such.

We have, largely through liturgical music but also through ministers’ avoidance of difficult issues (e.g. the “wives be submissive” Epistle passage some weeks back), set ourselves up as a religion of preferences. We have “youth Masses” with lots of music I wouldn’t have liked at all when I was 15 or so - and the planners of such events know this, but their concern is sometimes not so much catholic (i.e. universal) liturgy as popular liturgy, liturgy that appeals to the tastes of a popular majority. Weddings - the dreaded Bridezilla, anyone? She has learned all her life that liturgical music is “songs” punctuating a liturgy, so of course she plans her wedding with songs she likes. (The wise groom just looks on, accepting this as something that’s a bigger deal for her than for him.)

Anyway, back to funerals. Isn’t it strange that the Beatitudes, traditionally read on All Saints, are now an option for funerals (and All Souls) as well? We blur the distinction between these two occasions when such things happen - I only noticed that “Be Not Afraid” quotes the Beatitudes in the third verse, so really, that one would seem better not used for funerals. (I actually kinda like it for weddings - the wedding propers speak much about similar things.)

I am not sure how to solve this problem; the death of a loved one is not the occasion to inform a grieving family that the parish has a new policy of only a few tunes, all of which are specific to funerals but none of which is familiar (unless they love All Souls Day like I do). But at the same time, I think we can start to take steps in this direction if, ironically enough, the music we use on Sundays becomes *less* familiar, less like a radio where “I hope my favorite (church) song gets sung today.” Introit hymns are, I think, a good solution here - even changing just the text and keeping the tune is enough to communicate that each Mass is special, in and of itself, which includes sung texts as well as spoken.

The Communion proper, btw, was sung so-so; I think people appreciated it, but maybe didn’t want to go to the effort of singing something new, even short as it was (6 bars, I think). So, here we have a question of “participation in the liturgy” - a fuller sign of participation is possible with more familiar music, BUT the liturgy in which the people participate is lessened when the texts are not specific to the day/occasion. Not just “participation” is important, but “participation in the liturgy”.

sigh. Funeral in the morning for a kid who was 16 and got broadsided by an SUV with no lights on. He was a vegetable for a few days, and there was nothing that could have been done. I’ve been through some very rough times in my life, but never such an incredible jolt of acute pain as the family of this poor kid must be going through. Wow.


At Tuesday, November 07, 2006 1:16:00 PM, Blogger Mary Jane said...

My plan to is nail down the music for funerals, leaving only one slot open for "family choice" - probably the Offertory.

I don't think it's fair to ask people what they want (considering the mostly execrable music they've heard) and then tell that it's in bad taste.

As hymns begin to be replaced by propers (I hope), some of this problem will repair itself. In the meantime, we can have those favorite hymns at the vigil or wake. Just not at the funeral Mass.

At Tuesday, November 07, 2006 5:12:00 PM, Blogger Gavin said...

Yeah, Mary Jane has a good idea. I wouldn't go quite so far in the use of propers - probably make the introit and perhaps communion proper and leave the offertory and recessional to their choosing. People may be more discerning in their selections if they have fewer spots to fill. I mean it's my job to pick hymns and some days I'll just say "bleh, can't think of anything - Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!"; how much harder can it be for a typical layman to come up with 4 hymns? 2 or 3 makes it easier on them, and the music at the funeral will matter more to the family.


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