The other day when I was asked about what music I play for funerals, my first reaction was to say that no “one size fits all.” That is to say, that I try to fit the music to the person who has died. I ask how old the person was, and what type of faith experiences he or she may have had and what type of music he or she may have liked. I try to be sensitive to the desires of the deceased and what would be appropriate in the situation. I might play something very different for a child in contrast to someone who is old.
That said, there are pieces which I pull out frequently for funerals. I already wrote about “Vor deinen Thron,” the last work Bach wrote and allegedly dictated to his son-in-law on his deathbed. Check out my post “Music for the end,” in which I also mentioned the beloved Swedish hymn, Tryggare kan ingen vara (Children of the heavenly father) which I frequently play for Lutheran funerals.
My father died after a long and arduous battle with cancer, and so I chose to play a transcription of the sinfonia from Cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time), also called “Actus Tragicus.” That was also the same piece I played for my former high school music teacher, Regnal Hall, who died from Alzheimers.
Here is a performance by Cantus Cöln and Konrad Junghänel:
Seasonal music can also be appropriate. If someone died during Advent, I would pull out Bach’s Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the nations, come). In fact, I wrote a whole post about using music for Advent for a memorial service, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” Easter music is also particularly appropriate for any time of the year, and I have used Bach’s settings from the Orgelbüchlein on the Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in bonds of death) and Heut triumphiret Gottes Sohn (Today triumphs God’s son) as postludes.
But I don’t just play the music of Bach. Depending upon the person’s church experiences, I can play settings of gospel music for the prelude, postlude and during communion. Dale Wood has a wonderful setting of How Great Thou Art, in fact, I have all his volumes of gospel preludes in the series, Softly and Tenderly, which include such titles as I need thee every hour; He leadeth me; Sweet hour of prayer; Just as I am; Savior like a shepherd lead us, The old rugged cross; Blessed assurance and much more. Dale Wood also has a collection of American folk hymn settings which I have frequently used for preludes and postludes at funerals.
I’ll never forget the time I was asked to play a funeral at Iolani School for a woman I didn’t know. The chaplain asked me to pick a hymn that was uplifting, so I chose Hymn 460 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, Alleluia! sing to Jesus! (tune: Hyfrydol)
Here is the text from the first verse:
Alleluia! sing to Jesus! his the scepter, his the throne; Alleluia! his the triumph, his the victory alone; Hark! the songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood; Jesus out of every nation hath redeemed us by his blood.
I found out during the funeral that the victim was a hiker who got caught in a flash flood and whose body was retrieved from the Ala Wai Canal three days later. The words of that hymn were absolutely uncanny!
Oooh! gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.