The Funeral Organist

Some funerals are joyful celebrations of life while others can be like – funerals.  Organists are the greatest offenders of the latter.

New organists often ask what kind of music to play for funerals.  All too often they think they have to play slow, soft and with lots of whole notes.  I hate hearing the organ played that way for any occasion but especially at funerals.  Having grown up in a 19 room house where my parents operated a rest home for elderly woman, I experienced a lot of death but mostly the love of life. 

I doubt any of us would want flat, boring, sad, subdued and dirge-like funerals upon our passing.  I suspect many organists play this way because they are too afraid to sound any other way because they think that is how funerals are supposed to sound and the books out there currently offer nothing but dirges. 

For the prelude, or gathering period, I would mostly improvise so that I could keep an eye on the pastor and watch what everyone else is doing and I could quickly respond to assembly dynamics as they were gathering.  My music was always joyful, often fast but light in registration.

In my previous parish I was also charged with the task of meeting with the family of the deceased  to help them choose readings and music.  I would also meet with those who were asked to do readings to instruct them, give them copies to practice and explain what was going to happen.  I would ask the family if they wanted the mood of the service to be subdued or a joyful celebration of life and they always chose the later.   It didn’t hurt to have a pastor whose funeral homily was consistently about death being a birth into new life.

During the funeral, since the console was only about 15 feet from the front pew, the family always looked to me for cues and when I played something with a joie de vivre, they would look at me and smile.  During the Communion procession they would pass by my bench and most of the time, touch me on the shoulder or whisper a thank you.

Here are examples of how I would play both slow and fast.  Again, nothing from books – so that I could be in the moment:    (actually a little bit slower but with the same gist)

For the Offertory (Preparation of the Gifts) or Communion, if we were not singing a song or hymn, I would play like that.  There are dozens of books out there with music intended for funerals but anything from classical or contemporary literature works well.  They don’t have to have slow and quiet.  As I mentioned earlier, if the organists improvises, they can be in the moment and respond musically and dynamically to mood of the room.  In many cases, can even influence the mood in the room.  A skilled and cognizant organist can even control the talking and even volume of the assembly’s discourse. 

Have you noticed that at a lot of funerals people will use humor about the deceased to help them get through the pain?  Music can serve in that capacity, too.  Not by playing “funny,” but by playing joyfully, excitement, varied dynamics and registration changes. 

Funerals are for the living.  Here is a little story for the organist who is too afraid to play with joyful expectation because they thing funerals should be soft and slow:
God said to his people,
“Step toward the edge.”
and the people replied,
“No, it is too high.”
God repeated his command,
“Step toward the edge.”
and the people replied,
“No, we are afraid.”
God then said,
“Do not be afraid.  Step toward the edge.”
So the people stepped toward the edge,
. . . and God pushed them.
. . . and they flew.

Close the book.  Step toward the edge.



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