There are reasons pipe organs are not found in night clubs.
Although, having just written that sentence, I have an idea for a post-hipster night club: no DJ’s; rather organs, a bar serving an array of drinks in cylindrical glasses (similar to organ pipes), and it would be called The Great and Swell.
Pipe organs are unwieldy and expensive. Their sound can be jarring and loud. And perhaps most importantly they come off as creepy when they are spotted or heard outside of churches (see: haunted houses or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”).
When I tell people I am a church organist, the responses vary from polite “neat,” mildly hyperbolic “cool,” to the unconvincing “oh-interesting” -silence.
During a recent 14-mile run on a Saturday, I was asked by a running acquaintance what I play at funerals.
The question struck me as odd, partly because it seemed unprovoked, partly because the acquaintance is a bit odd (and aren’t we all?), and partly because I wasn’t sure why he was asking.
I will mention that we were running uphill. Running uphill lessens the oxygen flow to my brain as well as my ability to converse using phrases over three words.
“What kind of music do you play at funerals,” he asked.
I answered, staccato a few well-known hymns (at least I think they are)—“Amazing Grace,” “It Is Well,” “In the Garden”—and laughed the question off and changed the subject.
Yesterday I played for the memorial service of Nancy, one of our congregants. The funeral was sparsely attended. Nancy was eighty-three years old. She had “moved” to our church ten years ago. I did not know her well. But I do know she was a feisty lady. While I don’t think Nancy ever complimented me on my playing, she often gave me a nod of approval when I would see her, and say hello. She knew me by name, and used it when she spoke to me.
Even though I would not consider Nancy a close friend, nor will I sentimentalize my relationship with her, I knew of her, knew her faithfulness to the church, knew she struggled with life in the last few months of her life, knew she had a best friend named Helen, knew she loved animals and cared for them, knew she had lived on this earth eighty-three years, and like any of us, I knew she had changed countless lives in small and large ways.
As I sat at the keyboard of Clifton’s 1895 Koehnken and Grimm historic organ yesterday, my odd running acquaintance’s question from several weeks ago returned to me—“What kind of music do you play for funerals?”
And in a prayerful moment before I began to play, I prepared and answered a different question: “How do I play for funerals?”
I chose to play a little J. S. Bach. I love the beautiful organ chorale on the German hymn “Alle Menschen müssen sterben.” Its melody and harmonies step-wise reach—like we do when we are at our best—toward the infinite.
I chose to play a Diane Bish arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” It starts off softly, pleadingly, uncertain, then ends with full organ and jazz rhythms as the tune seems to recognize the words it carries, and the two join saying: “This grace is real. It’s loud. Get on board!”
I accompanied the congregation’s singing of “Hymn of Promise.” And I pulled the mixture and most of the stops when we got to “In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,/ Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
And for the postlude I played a dance-like arrangement of “Hymn to Joy” that transitioned from G-major to D-major, thumping “For All the Saints.”
When I play a funeral, I play loud and sure and bold (unless the family or officiant requests otherwise). I don’t play this way because I believe in an afterlife of pearly gates, streets paved with gold, expansive mansions, or any overwrought dwelling of our own imagining. I don’t play this way because I believe that when we die “at last, we are free!” While those things may or may not be true, I do not play for those reasons.
I play loud and sure and bold, because when I play for a funeral, I consider that we are distilling a life, remembering and celebrating our essence. In God’s presence.
Our daily-basis lives—when we are living them—are mostly ordinary and sometimes muddled. Sometimes our lives are solemn and disappointing.
But if I think about distilling life—which is what I think we’re doing at funerals and memorial services—that distillation is loud, fabulous, courageous, wonderful, bold, and it is beautiful when we let ourselves experience it.
And I think that’s how we should all go out.