28 July 2012

Funeral Music

Can be tricky.  I mean, the family may have their heart set on some pieces that simply do not serve the Church's mandate to proclaim the resurrection and the comfort and joy of Christ's victory over the grave. They want the "familiar" but then that really sets a challenge before pastors when their wishes ask for pieces not in our hymnal (my former parish had a policy that no hymns not in the hymnal would be sung at weddings and funerals - it's kind of limiting, but it helps the pastor to be able to say: "Oh, I'm sorry. We can only do what's in the hymnal - that's our congregation's practice. Can we look at some of these?") or for pieces that simply have nothing to do with the hope and joy of resurrection.

My pastoral practice for good or ill in the past was always to insist that the first hymn HAD to be a hymn of the resurrection. It connects with the lighted paschal candle and the pall as a sign of our baptismal sharing in Christ's righteousness and victory. I'd have several suggestions available to choose from. I'd encourage the hymn before the sermon to be a favorite of the person who had died. If they had two strong favorites, maybe include another one right after the sermon.  

But leaving the Church, the procession out headed to the grave? This is the time for the Church's huge "You have not won, Death!  You have not won at all!" to be proclaimed.  There are a handful of hymns in our hymnal that do the job, but I've come to believe that the absolute best piece at that moment is:  "God's Own Child."  

"There is nothing worth comparing to this life-long comfort sure. Open-eyed my grave is staring, even there I'll sleep secure.  Though my flesh awaits its raising, Still my soul continues praising. I am baptized into Christ!  I'm a child of paradise." 

When people leave church singing THAT, they can virtually DANCE to the grave in the joy that is the unique experience of the Christian faith. Such funerals then witness as no other service of the Church does (because of the larger number of unchurched who end up showing up for funerals) of the Life that has been given the deceased, a life that is way stronger than the death that seems (but only seems!) to have triumphed. We know it is not so and sing our joy in the face of death.  

Pastors, whatever you do when it comes to addressing the problem of hymns in the funeral, work to make sure that every funeral that comes along witnesses in song the joy of the resurrection itself - that the flesh that lies in that coffin dead and decaying will rise incorruptible and shining in glory!


Anonymous said...

Very good advice on the resurrection focus! I was more than a little surprised when someone asked me to use a song by Madonna at a funeral.

Timothy C. Schenks said...

I was allowed to plan my grandfather's funeral a few years ago and used all ten stanzas of Paul Speratus' "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" as the Hymn of the Day, among several other old Lutheran hymns. It was interesting seeing all the non-Lutherans (90% of the guests) singing them.

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

I've made available a brief guide for "Planning Your Funeral." Included is a list of hymn suggestions. My list tends to use your criteria.

To avoid the problem at my own funeral, I wrote my own hymn!

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

Oh, and I think my organist would be happy if we sang "God's Own Child" every time the congregation gathered for anything. Not that I'd argue, but I do like a little variety.

Anonymous said...

My preference, for a death between the end of the church year and Trinity, is to have the first hymn be a seasonal hymn. That helps the people realize that, yes, this is church, and it is just like church every week, and we are here in the presence of God and the community of believers. For the same reason, I want the congregation's responses, standing up and sitting down, and so on to be the same as what they have been practicing every week.

The needs of the congregation will depend to a certain extent on the circumstances of death. If the person has died unexpectedly or tragically, more people will still be in shock when they come into the church, and so a boisterous first hymn is not, I think, what will fit the moment.

For me, the choice of hymns will also take into account the expected attendance at the service. I am not going to ask a dozen mostly elderly people to struggle through eight stanzas of a hymn that requires strong voices in top shape (no "For all the saints," whose stirring tune has carried a text that probably would otherwise have been forgotten decades ago).

For these reasons, I urge people to be flexible when making plans for their own funerals. I have not requested anything in particular for mine; since I have no idea how I will die, I also don't know what will be most helpful to those I leave behind. I will trust the pastor and musician to figure that out.

Jay said...

Since a funeral is a Divine Service, the pastor should have the same responsibilities for content as the regularly scheduled Divine Services

RobbieFish said...

Apropos of not much, I make a point of playing a prelude on "Mitten wir im Leben sind" at every funeral where I am the organist.

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

You were at the SID conference, Will, where...was it Voelz?...well, whomever it was, they said something like we focus too much on the rest and not enough on the resurrection. I wish I could remember the exact words. When I wrote my Easter/funeral hymn, I kept that in mind.

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen

1. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Jesus, firstborn from the dead,
Burst the gates to hell’s dark prison.
Christ has triumphed as He said.
To the cross He bore sin's burden.
There He suffered grief and shame.
Rose again to earn our pardon--
Rose our freedom to proclaim.

2. Lo, His tomb now stands deserted.
Hark, the stone now rolled away.
Satan's power fails, diverted,
Hell's dark fury held at bay.
Now end's Satan's insurrection.
Hear the truth we claim by faith:
Through His mighty resurrection
Jesus bears the keys to death.

3. Sinful Adam, die with Jesus
In the great baptismal flood.
Washed of all sin's dread diseases,
Cleansed, we rise, in Jesus blood.
Where, O Hades, is your vict'ry?
Where, O Death, is now your sting?
Death, now toothless, falls before me.
Hell bows, mute, before my King.

4. Alleluia! Christ is risen,
And with Him the saints shall rise.
Death is nevermore our prison;
Now the gate to paradise.
Pow'r, dominion, glory, honor
To the Lamb who once was slain,
Who, with Spirit and the Father,
Now and evermore shall reign.

(c) Alan Kornacki, Jr.
87 87 D
Tune: HYFRYDOL (LSB 700)