A Saturday in November. I arrive about an hour and a half before the service and file up to the balcony. We’re singing two pieces this afternoon: Moses Hogan’s We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace, which I know backward and forward but rarely can get through without choking up; and Lucy Hirt’s arrangement of Abide with Me, which I remember well enough to know that I should be nervous about tuning on the first verse.
Louise, 89, was a retired Christian school teacher with a generous spirit. Every Sunday afternoon, her house would be filled with the sound of family and guests. She dedicated her life to her family and her church. She knew death was coming, but she did not fear it. She was ready.
One of the eulogies is delivered by her granddaughter, who turns out to be someone I worked with at Calvin several years back. It’s a lovely speech.
A Tuesday in December. I leave work a few hours early to catch some dinner and get to the church. It’s just me, my father, and our pianist Carol this time, performing Henry Smart’s setting of Psalm 23 as a baritone-tenor duet. I still get stage fright pretty badly when it’s just me and my dad, or really any situation where I’m so vocally exposed. But we’ve done this one before. I try, and mostly fail, to relax.
The service this time is for a man I actually know, just a little bit—I used to deliver his newspaper. Ken had a beautiful garden that surrounded the front corner of his house, with flowers for each of his children and grandchildren, and was often tending it when I came by with my press bag. A minister, he spent the last 10 years of his life serving nursing home residents and hospital patients as a chaplain. He was 71.
A Friday morning, just this month. The choir contains a mix of singers assembled by the director from his various groups, and we only have an hour to rehearse before the service begins. The piece we’re singing is Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful Ave Maria, which I’ve never sung before but heard many times. Fortunately, most of the singers already know it, and it comes together nicely.
Michael, 64, was battling no illnesses and had shown no signs of slowing down, with more grandchildren on the way and new business ventures on the horizon. In some ways, his life was still just beginning. But on that one morning, his wife got out of bed, and he never did.
I estimate I’ve sung in at least ten funerals in my life, maybe a few more. When you’ve been in choirs all your life, it comes with the territory. Most were in memoriam of someone I didn’t or only barely knew, to whom I was only tangentially connected. A fellow singer’s mother. An old man at church. A high school principal. A friend of the director.
I have always considered it an honor to be asked to sing, and have always agreed to do so willingly and gratefully. Music is a powerful thing, able to comfort a broken heart, or provide a moment of rest to a weary soul, or create a lasting memory that provides joy or strength in the days to come. I want to be able to share that with others, if I can.
But funerals are never easy, they’re rarely much fun, and although I’ve been singing in them for a long time now (including three iin just the past half year), I never really get used to doing it. Concerts become routine. Going to festivals and conventions becomes routine. Leading evening worship services, admittedly, becomes routine.
Funerals do not. Each one is different. Each one leaves its mark.
I may not have known anything at all about the person in the casket before the service begins. But during the hour that follows I will get to know her. I will get to know her family. I will learn what she meant to her community and those that loved her. I will hear strain in her family’s voices and see pain in their faces, and it will become all too easy to imagine myself in their place. I will be reminded of those that I have lost.
An hour and a half later, we will all go our separate ways. But her story will have become a part of me. And my song will be a part of her family and friends.
The service ends. I grab my coat and my backpack and make my way to the main lobby, where guests are gathering to decompress. I stand around awkwardly, trying to both look comfortable and avoid making eye contact with anyone at the same time.
I never really know what to do in these situations, but I try to make myself available for just a little while, just in case. Maybe someone from a past life recognized me and wanted to talk. Maybe someone will just want to talk, period.
I’m pretty sure I don’t really know anyone here, so it’s hard to imagine who would want to chat with me and even harder to imagine what I would say if they did. But it feels wrong, somehow, to leave so suddenly.
Most of these people I will never see again, and even if I do we would not recognize one another. And yet we’ve shared something powerful and moving and meaningful. I feel compelled to just be present for a few more moments, to share this moment a little longer, even though I’m not sure at this point what it is exactly that I’m sharing, or who I’m sharing it with.
Ten minutes come and go. I’ve spoken to no one.
I turn and walk out the door.