Some Thoughts Regarding Funeral Music

by Robert Mann, Resource Library Director

christ-church-cross-smThe funeral service as worship can be challenging because the timeframe for planning is usually short and emotions run high in the selection of music. This challenge can occur even when it is desirable that theological and musical convictions play a major role in the selection of the music used.

Church funerals (and weddings) are essentially congregational events in which the ministry of the church is extended through the leadership of the pastor and church musician. Accountability is made easier if the church has a written policy describing music to be used. Such a policy will define the role leadership is expected to fulfill by the congregation, maintain the integrity of the church’s liturgy, and help eliminate any confusion by families and the congregation.

The ideal situation has the pastor and musician in agreement on what is acceptable music for the service. If views differ, the musician must present to the pastor strong theological and musical reasons to support the view proffered. If the musician’s views are theologically and musically defensible, the pastor should support the educated, professional decision of the church musician. The pastor and church musician are partners, with each supporting the other in the requirement of each professional position.

Erik Routley writes in Church Music and Theology (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959, page 110), the lack of a partnership between pastor and church musician creates “a wicked waste of an opportunity for glorifying God.” Pastor and church musician should work in tandem and be free to discuss differences of opinion in what Paul Westermeyer calls a “dialogue of grace” (The Church Musician, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997, page 102). Resolutions of differences between pastor, church musician, and congregations exemplify a community of grace that can sing the Lord’s song together, a song that expresses the presence of Christ among them (Westermeyer, p. 103-104).

At times, however, the musician is left with the responsibility of maintaining suitability and dignity in burial worship without assistance from the clergy. We know how difficult it is to maintain musical standards alien to the clergy or family of the deceased in the time of grief. On such occasions, the church musician should offer expertise and pastoral skills in selecting music appropriate for the worship of God that honors the deceased through the celebration of life and resurrection.

The music requested by family, at times, can bring chaos to funerals, or, at the least, a weakening of effective worship. Sometimes, the best intention of the musician is compromised by circumstances beyond control and little or nothing can be done to prevent it.

Recently, a situation occurred where a guest organist was requested to play the funeral of a deceased former church organist who had been faithful to the church for many years. The deceased even selected appropriate organ music to be played at her funeral. Shortly before the organist was to begin the selected prelude selections, a son of the deceased replaced the selections with a slide presentation of his mother’s life accompanied by a sound track of country western music. The organist was forced to wait until the presentation was completed before she could begin her pre-planned (abbreviated) prelude.

When Baroness Margaret Thatcher died last April, her service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Congregational hymns were Charles Wesley’s Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; John Bunyan and Percy Dearmer’s He who Would Valiant be ‘Gainst all Disaster; and Cecil Spring-Rice’s I Vow to Thee, My Country, All Earthly Things Above. The latter hymn compares love for an earthly country with the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ that gives believers access to a promised unknown country after death.

Anthems sung were Henry Purcell’s Hear My Prayer (Psalm 102:1); Johannes Brahms’ How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place (Psalm 84:1-2,4); Gabriel Faure’s In Paradisum from Requiem Mass (May angels lead you into paradise); Charles Villiers Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32, Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace).

What can we identify from this music that will carry over to our burial services?

1) Texts for all vocal music are sacred. Moreover, all texts used in Baroness Thatcher’s service are Scripture-based. Texts for anthems should be based on Biblical truths if they are not direct quotes from Scripture.

2) Vocal music should reflect and support the scriptures of the liturgy. The hymns in Thatcher’s service reflect inheriting eternal life through Jesus Christ. The anthems focus on supplication, forgiveness, and acceptance into eternal rest as prepared for the believer. All texts used in the music are intended for the benefit of the entire congregation as well as the family of the deceased. In addition to burial sentences, scriptures read were: John 11:25-26; Job 19:25-27; 1 Timothy 6:7; Job 1:21; Ephesians 6:10-18; John 14:1-6.

3) Your choir may not be able to sing these specific anthems, but appropriate anthems of all levels of difficulty are available from varied historical periods. Seek out anthems in your choral library for possible choices for your choir to sing. Remember, it is always better to sing to the strength of your choir and not try to sing a requested anthem beyond the ability of your singers.

4) Music can reflect the life of the deceased and should uphold the best liturgical traditions of the church in which the service is held.

Several other ideas come to mind.

1) Appropriate hymns for funerals can be found in hymnal indexes and denominational worship planners. See Resources on the Church Music Institute website homepage.

2) Suggestions for anthems can be found in the Church Music Institute eLibrary on-line catalogue. Enter appropriate words that will bring up titles of anthems, such as: funeral, death, resurrection, paradise, etc. Searches can be modified by level of difficulty, voicings, etc. And, scriptures from funeral services can be entered to locate anthems matching them, for example “John 14:1-6.”

3) It is a good plan to prepare in advance a list of appropriate hymns suitable for the funeral service to present to the family of the deceased. The same can be said regarding appropriate anthems. Anthems should be selected from your choral library, and several should be part of the existing repertoire of the choir. Choose music the choir can sing with short preparation time. Hymns and anthems can be added that reflect the individual personality of the deceased.

4) Choosing appropriate music for funeral services often requires educating the church membership. Church members need to know what kind of music is appropriate and why. It is usually too late to offer education to a grieving family. Specific examples of appropriate hymns and anthems must be identified and shown as worthy of use ahead of the time needed. The congregation must be made aware through an ongoing educational procedure that is part of the church musician’s agenda. Start with your choir to achieve this goal and use the worship committee and church school classes to gain access to the congregation.