I went to a funeral this morning. I didn't know the deceased. I went there as organist, playing music to ease the pain of the family's final farewell to a loved one.
I have long ago lost track of how many funerals I've provided music for over 35 years of being a church organist. It is a lot, I imagine. When I think of my own passing -- someday a long time from now, God willing -- I hope that among those greeting me on the other side are the souls of those I helped bid goodbye. After all, when it comes to passing through the Pearly Gates, I figure I'm going to need all the help I can get.
This morning's funeral was the second one I attended this week. The first was for my Aunt -- my mother's sister -- who passed away from complications of Alzheimer's. Just like Mom did.
Funny enough, the music director at my Aunt's church is my former music teacher; he was the one who opened the doors to me for reading, interpreting, presenting, conducting, and praying with music. We caught up a little and then he asked if I'd like to play something for my Aunt at the Mass.
I declined. I was there as a mourner only and wasn't interested in taking the bench.
Playing a funeral requires a deep level of emotional distancing from the tears, tissues, hugs, and remembrances. That distance requires a totally separate frame of mind for me to competently play. It's about focus; it's about brain-power; it's about attention. All of which fly in the face of being able to grieve myself. Or share in others' grief.
I describe it this way: When I play, I am in work mode. Which means I am in a totally different realm, necessitated by the faculties needed to play the organ in the first place and to monitor continually what's going on liturgically.
It's the difference between helping to lead worship and simply participating in worship. It's also the reason I chose not to play Mass for either of my parents' funerals. Or my Aunt's. I wanted to participate in those liturgies. Not help lead them.
I'm asked a lot whether playing funerals bothers me. Not really. The ability to take myself out of the sadness and grief and operate in that work mode comes very much in handy.
But it's not 100%.
I can recall playing for the funeral Mass of the pastor of my first "true" church job. Despite its questionable use in Catholic Liturgy, the "Our Father" by Albert J. Malotte was a favorite of this priest. It's here, if you need a reminder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HblbMFvWyIM
It was included in his funeral Mass, just as it was at every Mass he celebrated. But midway through the introduction, it all hit me: He was gone; the piece's unorthodoxy would come to light by his successor; and this was likely the last time I would play it. And so in a wash of emotion, the tears crept down my cheeks as I maneuvered through the measures.
The only other time I can recall having difficulty with a funeral liturgy is when I was serving as music director/organist at a nearby Protestant church.
The choir there was very small but very dedicated, and I clicked in a big way with one of the baritones, Neil. Neil was a handful of years older than I, but he had a quick wit and a generous laugh and a heart as big as all creation. We became fast friends.
He was a man of quiet faith, but his belief ran deep. And perhaps never was it more tested when his 20-something son was killed accidentally, shot as a mistaken burglar by an overly zealous neighbor.
Neil and his wife Marion and his other children were understandably shattered. And the church family was rocked to its very core, hit in the spiritual solar plexus with an out-of-nowhere wallop.
The the date was set for a funeral service and naturally I would be playing. I assumed work mode would take over and I would be fine...
And for most of it, I was.
The sanctuary was packed. Neil's son had a wide net of friends, and the seats quickly filled to capacity. So they stood in the back. And the aisles. And took up just about every square inch of space. I remember clearly that some of the youthful mourners sat cross-legged behind the organ bench itself, so eager were the bereft to share in this family's pain.
I don't recall exactly what triggered it. Maybe it was at the very end, watching Neil and Marion leave the church, shadows of their former selves, hunched over as if their pain was a great weight that they were trying to bear on frail shoulders.
I know the music in my vision blurred and then washed out completely. I couldn't see anything through my crying. But somehow, I pressed on and finished the service.
As bad as it can be for me in these few instances where emotion takes over on the bench, I do consider myself lucky. I can hide behind the console. And fall back on memorization skills to get me through when the score turns watery by my quiet sobs.
But the singers in these situations have it far, far worse. They are front and center, depending on the geography of the church itself. And they've got to sing -- they've got to be able to use their voices and breath control to form the words that bring comfort.
All I need are fingers and feet. Neither of which turn quivery or crack under duress.
So if you ask me to play a funeral and I accept, fine. But if I politely decline, know that it isn't because I don't want to give you that gift. It's because I'd rather stand with you. Lean my shoulder into yours. And grieve right along with you.