Before I start talking about music for Catholic funerals, I'd like to speak to the context of what I want to say. Sometimes the church and liturgists and musicians get a bad rap for being tied down by rubrics and other rules about how music should be done in church, what kind of music, and when and who gets to sings. Sometimes, I confess, the criticism is deserved. But I think that most of the time, what we're trying to do is say that the church herself has a long tradition of serving her members, preserving another, profound truth behind the shattering reality of death. For two millennia, the church has experience with human grief, loss, and hope when our reality is shaken loose from its moorings by death, whether expected or unexpected. What we do in those times is meant to announce from every word, every touch, every candle, every color, every smell of the incense, every song the gospel of Jesus Christ, dead and risen. We have a story to tell. And the important fact is that the story is not told to the deceased and those gathered to mourn, but through the deceased and those gathered to mourn. Our rubrics and other rules are there to remind us of that. We don't have to make anything up, verbal and musical smoke and mirrors to make people feel better about a terrible event. We have a tradition of faith that calls us to remember, at a time when we may be at sea in a hurricane of grief and lose, to remember who we are. And who we are is Christ, already dead and risen, for whom death does not exist as an enemy. The Christian, in death as in life, is a sacrament, a visible manifest of an invisible reality. That reality is the paschal mystery. That mystery, the mystery that, somehow, in God and made visible in Jesus Christ, it is always the seed falling into the earth and dying that creates life, makes meaning out of everything that happens to us, because that mystery describes in human metaphor the very life of God. The great Fr. Eugene Walsh, a pastoral liturgist of happy memory, used to offer us this yardstick for life: "Jesus promises you two things: your life will have meaning, and you will live forever. If you get a better offer, take it."
Thus, the Christian is light, the word of God, bread from heaven to feed the world. The Christian, like Christ to whom the Holy Spirit bonded us in baptism, is shepherd, resurrection, way, truth, life, living water. The funeral is intended to be witness to that, to say, 'this is how God worked thru my mother, my spouse, my friend, my child, my colleague. This is how the world was saved by her actions, her presence, her smile. This is how the hungry were fed, strangers and enemies were loved, the sick were healed; this is how we knew Christ was present here, God-among-us, when s/he came to the aid of the least of our brothers and sisters.' We have stories about that. The homily especially, and any "words of remembrance" spoken in the service, ought to have those stories, that kind of witness, at the ready: how was our brother or sister a sacrament of the invisible God in his/her life?
Funeral liturgy is about that, praising God for what God did through the one we love. Baptism joined us to Christ in his death and resurrection. Death, as Paul says, no more power over us. That is our message. We live no longer ourselves but Christ is alive in us. In the funeral liturgy, we tell that story, how God became flesh in the Christian. The beloved will never die, not because we will remember them, because, eventually, we won't. Stop telling that lie. They, and we, will never die because God promised that. God will remember. What God remembers lives. What God remembers is. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. God is the God of the living.
The funeral liturgy that we have only begun to implement in the Order of Christian Funerals imagines several days interspersed with formal and informal celebrations of this memory making, story telling, mourning and rejoicing, grieving and letting go. It imagines this going on in homes, at funeral home, at the wake in the funeral home and/or the church, at the church, and at the place of committal. Different kinds of music are appropriate at different places and times. Almost every kind of music has its place in the celebration of a person's life. What is appropriate at the funeral mass, the climax but neither the beginning nor the end and certainly not the whole celebration of the person's life, is liturgical music. The principles that apply to all church ritual music continue to apply at funerals: full, conscious, active participation of the assembly is primary. Why? Because Christ is the one who is acting in the liturgy, and the gathered community of the baptized is the living presence of Christ.
So what music is called for in the funeral mass? Only music that tells our story. It is music that proclaims who God is, what God has done for us, who Christ is, what difference Christ makes. It is music that announces the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us one in Christ and enables our beginning to live the life of God here and now in these mortal bodies, and, we hope, eternally in glorified ones with Christ. It is music that is witness to the body of Christ, the church, and its ongoing mission to bring everyone everywhere to a life of mutual love, of agape, lived 168 hours every week, and celebrated for one or two of those hours around the table of the Messiah.
We sing that, for instance, we can "be not afraid" because Christ has gone before us into every darkness we may face, and we know that if Christ has gone there, then God is there.
We sing, for instance, that God has entered into our pain, “his own son not sparing, sent him to die,” and proclaim in faith “My God, how great thou art.”
We sing for God to “make me a channel of your peace," giving of ourselves, and in dying being born to eternal life. We sing of faith that those who have lived life in the shelter of the Lord and called God “my refuge” will be raised on eagle’s wings and shine like the sun. We sing of Jerusalem, our destiny, the Jerusalem that is the community into which we are baptized, the Jerusalem that is the place, wherever it is, that the Christian encounters the ultimate choice between death and life, the Jerusalem of mystery that awaits us beyond the veil of death.
We sing with great faith and in many musical ways the ancient words of the 23rd psalm, proclaiming that in the very hour of darkness, in the valley of the shadow of death, we go where the good shepherd leads, because we know the shepherd leads us to a full table in a meadow with clear-running streams, where even enemies within bowshot cannot touch us.
We have a story to tell: we belong to God, who is saving the world from its fear of death and obsession with acquisitiveness and power by offering a different way of living in Jesus Christ. We, the baptized, tell that story every moment of our lives, sometimes better than others. But we never tell it more clearly than in the hour of death, when we release our beloved into the hands of God. In the absolute honesty of that time, we see that however much our love ties us to the deceased person, God has loved them infinitely more, called them “beloved” both in birth and in baptism, and nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have a story to tell. We tell that story at home, at the wake, and the funeral, at the committal, in between, before and after. Sometimes we tell it with song. Different moments will call for different kinds of music, and in the funeral mass, a certain kind of music is called for.
Specifically, then, what music do we need for the funeral liturgy?
The participation of the community is called for at all the usual times in the mass, the responsorial psalm, the alleluia or gospel acclamation, the acclamations of the eucharistic prayer. In addition, the assembly ought to be invited to be a part of singing the procession of the mourners and casket, at the beginning of the service, into the body of the church from the doors, singing at communion, and singing the final commendation, which is usually some form of the litany “Saints of God” or the song “May the Angels Lead you into Paradise.” There can be music at the time of the gifts as well, but there’s certainly room for instrumental or reflective music at this time that is not necessarily sung by everyone.
About two years ago I wrote a blog post about commonly used titles in funerals at our parish, based on the way they stack up in an iPad app that I use to store my music. Here is a link to a list of titles (numbers refer to the Gather Third Edition hymnal, which is in our pews) that we make available to individuals and families planning a funeral with a bereavement minister.
This list of songs is not meant to be exclusive at all. Not all the families who come to us to bury their dead are worshippers at St. Anne, and Catholic churches across the country worship not only in a variety of musical styles, they worship with different musical resources and hymnals, and in a variety of languages as well. This list is an expression of how we worship here in Barrington. But music from other hymnals and resources is also quite acceptable within the constraints of our building and instruments, my abilities and those of other musicians, and of course the liturgical parameters I outlined above. And the seasons of the years could well affect the kind of music chosen for a funeral. Certainly in Advent we would be hard pressed to find a song more expressive of our loss and our hopeful longing for the fulfillment of promised joy than the ancient plainsong chant "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Christmas offers its own possibilities that express our being caught between love and loss, darkness and light, in songs like "I Wonder as I Wander," "Coventry Carol," "In the Bleak Midwinter," and "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." Similar material can be found in our Lent and Easter repertoire, of course. And if we're really doing Sunday right, then our normal parish repertoire should be full of songs that attempt to praise the God who unites us in the paschal mystery of Christ, who binds us together in life by plunging us into Christ's death in the waters of baptism so that we can rise with him. Some of the songs I alluded to above, drawn from the Sunday repertoire of our parish and many others, do exactly this, which is why people are drawn to them in times of loss and confusion.
All of us in the parish are grateful for the work that you bereavement ministers do among the grieving, and you need to know that, as Fr. Austin Fleming says in his wonderful book Preparing for Liturgy: A Theology and Spirituality, by the work you do God is saving the world. I hope these words can help you appreciate how important the work you do is, and for all of us mortals, all of us who will indeed die one day, help us to see that in death as in life we are part of a great mystery, the paschal mystery of the God of the living. God remembers us, and so we live. That is the promise. In death, for God's faithful people, life is changed, not ended.