Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Christian funerals in a secular society

As someone interested in Christian hymnody and liturgy, I have been taking notes as I go to weddings and (more often) funerals. Members of my parents’ generation have been dying through natural causes, while at the same time there are occasional (and tragic) funerals for family members who have died well before their time.

This Week’s Experience

Sunday I attended the funeral for my aunt (married to my mom’s brother for 60+ years). It was held at the TEC church where she was married more than 70 years ago, in the 1960s-era sanctuary where she worshipped for nearly 40 years. Unlike with my father, at age 95 my aunt has outlived her contemporaries (and her husband and sister) and so the service was about 20 family and friends from having lived in the same community for 90+ years (including some of her husband's former high school students).

The service was Rite II burial from the 1979 prayer book, with four readings (Isaiah 61:1-3; 1 John 3:1-2; John 5:24-27,6:37-40) from the RSV. There was no homily, but remembrances from the family and the rector who knew her for the last few years. The 68-year-old rector vowed his openness and inclusiveness but had the judgement to know that this was not the occasion to promote his modernized theology.

Compared to other funerals, two things stuck out. First, when we had communion only about a dozen people came up, including only five from the family. This was despite the priest’s pronouncement that anyone (not just any Christian) was welcome.

Secondly, almost no one sang the only hymn, at the recessional, despite being an Anglican favorite. In retrospect this should not have been surprising. I was the only practicing Anglican (CoE, TEC, ACNA, Continuing or otherwise) among the family that includes Catholic, nondenominational and a plurality (perhaps majority) of lapsed Christians. There were probably a few of my aunt’s parish friends singing behind us, but he organ drowned out the few of us that knew the hymn: “All things bright and beautiful" (H82: 405). I know why she would have loved it, just as my wife has listed it as a possibility for her own funeral.

However, if the funeral is for the living — not the dead — then picking something that is Anglican (but not ecumenical) for the recessional won’t (IMHO) provide the final closure for those present. That doesn’t mean that such a hymn can’t be used: as with Sunday morning, I like a three (or four) hymn service, so one of these could be placed somewhere earlier in the service (or supported by a choir).

Anglican Hymns for an Ecumenical Funeral

In the last few years, I have attended funerals at (another) cousin’s Lutheran church for her husband and later her son. The latter had two hymns from the Lutheran Book of Worship: “Amazing grace” (in H82 but not H40) and “How great thou art” (not in either one). The former hymn went well, but the latter proved difficult.

My father loved church music all his life and became increasingly devout at the end of his life. At his 1995 funeral, we had three pieces of music:
  • “Jerusalem, my happy home” (H40: 535, Tune: Land of Rest)
  • Psalm 23 (tune by Malotte) sung by a soloist
  • “Eternal father, strong to save” aka the Navy hymn (H40: 513, Tune: Melita)
As a WW II Army veteran, we used the multi-service version (H40: 513) rather than the Navy original (H40: 512)l As a civilian, my service would drop the Navy hymn. I would prefer the Rutter Psalm 23 but (as in my father’s case) few churches have a soloist or choir who could perform it on short notice. That still leaves one or two hymns to be added.

My dad’s service — at his then-ECUSA (now ACNA) parish — brought family, some Christian friends, and many of his church friends. (He was 81, but his friends were a decade younger). Most of the congregation knew the hymns.

After my dad died, I talked with my wife and her parents. We came up with these hymns:
  • “Eternal father” (H40:513) for my father-in-law, who was a Korean War Army vet
  • “Faith of our Fathers” (H40: 393; H82: 558)
  • “Mine eyes have seen the glory” (tune: John Brown’s Body, aka Battle Hymn of the Republic) — something all three of them wanted
  • “O God our help in ages past” (H40: 289)
  • “Onward Christian soliders” (H40: 557; H82: 562)
Meanwhile, my mother-in-law wants “On eagle’s wings” which clearly requires a soloist.

To this list, my wife added three Anglican favorites
  • “For all the saints” (H40: 126.1; H82: 287)
  • “All things bright and beautiful” (H40: 311; H82: 405)
  • “I sing a song of the saints of God” (H40: 243; H82: 293)
The former is our favorite hymn for November 1, while the latter two were sung at our daughter’s baptism (along with “All hail the power of Jesus’ name”, H40: 355). Now I can see these hymns would be a problem unless there’s a large Anglican turnout.

To this I would add
  • “Amazing Grace” (H82: 671), although this is a nonstandard 4-part harmonization
  • “Rock of ages” (H40: 471.2; H82: 685)
  • “How lovely is thy dwelling place” — an English version of the tune from Brahms’ German Requiem, that was used at the Ford and Thatcher funerals (although it clearly would require a soloist)
Finally, there is the question of where they go in the service. For the processional, I’d love to keep “Jerusalem, my happy home” but this 19th century American spiritual is not all that familiar. “For all the saints” is a great choice but (thanks to Vaughn Williams) even more Anglican. “O God our help in ages past" might be more ecumenical.

There is also the question of the recessional and dismissal. My dad’s funeral used “Faith of our fathers” which might work for my father in law. However, I would say that the two martial hymns (“Onward Christian soldiers”, “Mine eyes have seen the glory”) would work well, as would “I sing a song of the saints of God” with a very Anglican audience.