Why is it that as soon as I sink into a hot bubble bath I get ideas? But for you, I got out, tracked water and bubbles all over my carpet and passed by my window naked—hi neighbor!—to get this down because God forbid I relax when there’s an idea buzzing around my head. Here goes.
Most of you know I’m a musician. I sing, play piano and guitar and write the occasional song. I have played here, there and everywhere, but these days, in addition to playing the Masses at Sacred Heart Church, I play the funeral circuit. Most of your major showbiz performers play clubs, fairs and concerts, but funerals? Not so much. Me, I check the obits as soon as the newspaper arrives so I can plan my life.
I always hope nobody I know has died. Beyond that, I hope nobody Catholic has died. Lots of people in our rural coastal community are not having services these days. It’s expensive, their families live elsewhere, and who needs all that commotion? Many others opt for non-church functions, such as potlucks, barbecues and other gatherings at local lodges, restaurants, or people’s homes. I have played for funerals/celebrations of life at community centers and funeral homes, for the religious and the nonreligious, but with my music minister job, most of my funerals are Catholic. I always feel relieved when I read that the Baptists, Presbyterians or Lutherans are taking care of things.
I usually have only a few days to plan, especially if there’s going to be a body in a casket instead of ashes in an urn. We start with a phone call. I’m always nervous about talking to the recently bereaved. I’m afraid they’re going to fall apart, but most of the time they’re calm and just want to take care of things.
Ideally, they either have a list of songs they have picked out from the church hymnal or they let me pick the songs. We have a pretty standard list to work with. Frequently, they want the dreaded “Ave Maria.” It’s a gorgeous song. I want it at my funeral, too, but it’s a bear to play, so I never suggest it. I cannot sing it and play it at the same time, and I have been saddled with soloists who come in at the last minute. It’s not always pretty. I still feel bad about the guy whom I assured I would lower the pitch and I forgot. That poor fellow was hurting trying to get those high notes out.
Sometimes they want a choir, sometimes just me singing, sometime no singing at all. Whatever. I’m easy. Although the next time somebody wants me to play “Wagon Wheels” on my guitar at a funeral, I think I’ll decline. Or “You’ll Never Know.” Scratch that one, too.
I just did a funeral in Waldport at a tiny church that is not my own with a priest whose ways I did not know. The people planning it picked songs out of the air that I was sure the priest would veto. Nope. This priest is easy-going. I hit musicnotes.com, downloaded the songs and was half-way to learning them when the person arranging the funeral changed the song list. Yikes. “Wind Beneath My Wings” in church? Really? Okay. First time in history the bread and wine were consecrated to a Bette Midler hit.
Like mortuary workers, you have to have a funeral wardrobe to play the funeral circuit. Black is still the standard. I own a lot of black slacks, skirts, shirts, jackets and sweaters. In other performing situations, you go for the bling, but not at funerals. No sequins, red scarves, or sassy hats. The folks in the pews may wear anything from jeans to black cocktail dresses, but my job is to be invisible.
In a standard Catholic funeral Mass, I play about 12 pieces of music, including four or five full-length songs and various Mass parts such as the psalm, gospel acclamation, and Holy, Holy. Before the Mass, I play instrumentals for about 15 minutes, all songs designed to console the bereaved. Then the Mass starts with its usual sitting standing kneeling sitting kneeling bowing sign of the cross aerobics while the non-Catholics sit looking confused.
Funerals are naturally emotional. People may be crying, sobbing, fighting to hold back tears, or grabbing for the Kleenex box in the front row. More often than you might expect, they are calm, especially if the person who died was old and had been sick for a long time. The worst funeral I ever played was for a 21-year-old man who died of a brain tumor. His hysterical fiancée had to be taken outside, and the front rows were filled with sobbing young men. I struggled to keep my eyes on the sheet music and think about anything but death.
There’s usually at least one baby ratcheting from giggles to tears and back to giggles or a toddler running up and down the aisles. That’s okay. It helps us all know that life goes on. And yes, somebody’s cell phone inevitably goes off during the service.
Family members giving the eulogies nearly always choke up, which causes the rest of us to do likewise. I get teary, too, missing the person who died if I knew him or thinking about my own loved ones who have died or may die soon. I also get the willies when there’s a casket, usually placed very close to the piano. I start picturing the body inside.
When my husband died (five years ago this month), I sat in the front row while my choir and his friends from the barbershop chorus sang. I was dying to jump up and join the music, but my dad was next to me giving me the sit-and-be-quiet look. I would much rather be the musician than the bereaved. I don’t want a front row seat to that show.
The funeral circuit isn’t so bad. My name is on the program, I get paid, and sometimes at the reception afterward, I get cake. But if you’ve got a gig where I don’t have to wear black, I’m available.