The organist at a funeral Mass

For the first time in a couple years, I got the call to serve as organist for a funeral. Not to make it intimidating or anything, but it was for a relatively well-known, high-profile man who had provided a large portion of the funding for the building of one of my churches. Luckily, I was on my game that day, playing about as well as I could.

Funeral organisting (which I’m generally unavailable for, because of my day job) is one of the less thought-about aspects of being a church musician. But let me tell you a little bit about it.

Do not want to do. Song hearkens back to a much grouchier time, and I’m not sure it’s really supported by Church teaching.

1. Many of us are taking time off from our day jobs to do this.

When I had a telecommuting job, that was the case, and it’s the case for a lot of other churches that don’t have full-time musicians. The choir/cantor is often made up of retirees, stay-at-home moms and parish employees. Some churches, of course, have full-time organists, but the choir will likely still be made up of retirees. That’s not to say we can’t sing and play. Of course we can, and we’ll do our best to make the music as excellent as we can.

2. Chances are, it’s all stuff the organist has done time and time again.

“On Eagle’s Wings.” “Be Not Afraid.” “Amazing Grace.” “How Great Thou Art.” The Schubert “Ave Maria.” None of these are particularly challenging. But it’s hymns like that that families continually request. I have some great funeral stuff that I’d love to use at some point. But family requests (unless they’re ridiculous or liturgically inappropriate) tend to rule.

3. Yes, we get paid.

Some people don’t know this, because the funeral home writes that check. To me, there’s something a little weird about making money related to a death. There probably shouldn’t be: at its simplest, I provide a necessary service, regardless of the situation. But it underscores the responsibility that I feel: in my role, I offer comfort to the grieving family and assist the service that wishes that the deceased make it to heaven. I feel entirely obligated to do more than my best to earn my pay in that situation.

4. In places, it can be harder to figure out what the priest is doing.

So some priests handle funerals different from others, and there are some different ways they can handle them. The basic version is one I can figure out, but sometimes, the priest will do some extra actions or say a few extra things that force me to try to figure out what he’s doing. There have been a few misfires where I start something, the priest immediately starts talking, I have to quit after a couple notes, and it sounds wrong. (A lot of times, you can cover up mistakes. Not in this case.)

That’s just a few starting things. Questions? Leave a comment on this post.

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