Monday, February 16, 2009

Funeral Music

One of the hardest parts of my job is planning out Funeral Masses with the grieving families. The Extraordinary Form of the Requiem Mass is straightforward which is a freedom for me.

In the Ordinary Form, there is one request and one request only that is common to every single family and it is "On Eagle's Wings". It is not easy to tell the families that, "No, this is not appropriate for the Mass and we don't allow it here at our parish."

Most families are understanding after I explain that the Mass has prescribed music and that we can't just put whatever we want because we have an emotional attachment to a particular song.

This past week, I had to deal with a family that was very insistent on their choice of music. Our pastor tried to direct their choices, but they were not listening. So by the time they spoke with me, they presented a program that was entirely inappropriate for the Mass. Hint, "Danny Boy" and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling". When I explained that I couldn't allow these choices, I was confronted with outright hostility. I understood and felt compassion for them in their grief. Sadly, their previous experiences of funeral Masses had this music. And I felt like I was being maneuvered, triangulated and pitted against our pastor, the cantor and organist. This is not a position you would want to find me in because I will fight back and it ends up not being pretty whatsoever.

I don't know how, but in the end, we were able to work out the music that was dignified and proper to the Mass. The music they wanted was either played or sung at the Viewing of the Body and at the graveside.

Processional hymn: Praise to the Lord the Almighty
Psalm 23, Alstott from Respond and Acclaim
Gospel Acclamation from Chabanel Psalms Music for Funerals
Offertory Music: Schubert Ave Maria
Communion Music: I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord; I Received the Living God
Final Commendation: In Paradisum (plainchant)
Recessional hymn: Holy God, We Praise Thy Name

I think my friends' prayers sustained me throughout the trying week for which I am grateful.


mike said...

I'm intrigued. Why is "On Eagle's Wings", a slightly free version of Psalm 90 (91), not appropriate or allowed for a funeral, while "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name", a barely recognizable paraphrase of the Te Deum, is acceptable?

Argent said...

Musically it's a wretched piece of drek. It's cliche-ish, emotional, and undignified.

Adrienne said...

It sounds like a Broadway tune...

Argent said...

That's an important point, Adrienne. Using music that is secular in nature and evokes the secular world is not appropriate for Mass. We've been held captive by the idea that Mass should make us feel good. And the quickest way to be "relevant" in the Mass is to have sappy and emotional music. Then it makes one feel like they've worshiped God. The Gregorian chants are too remote and cold and calculating and burdensome because one can't connect with them, like, say, Be Not Afraid. Though you can claim that it's scriptural, the music is just poorly written. How many ordinary people can count the note values for sixteenth notes and know how long to hold those interminable tied notes?

Aelric said...

I suggest that Ps. 90(91) is not theologically appropriate for a funeral mass even should it be set to plainchant. The psalm is a message of comfort and exhortation for the living and makes an excellent meditation for Compline. So verse 15 pertains to when one can, in life, call upon the Lord.

Now separated from the body in death, the soul can no longer merit on its own: it is now our job to pray in reparation for whatever temporal punishment may be due to the poor soul (if any). The Mass texts then should be focused on our participation in the communion of saints; the Church Militant joining its voice (by reparation and in union with the Sacrifice of the Cross) with the Church Triumphant for the spiritual benefit of the Church Suffering.

Why the Te Deum? Because the direct praise of God (in the Beatific Vision) is in fact our only true end; participation directly in the Heavenly Liturgy. If any prayer of Holy Church then, summarizes our Hope for our loved ones and for ourselves, it is the Te Deum. The first two words are sufficient. That "Holy God we praise thy name" mangles the text is regrettable, but at least the prayer intention directly corresponds with the task at hand.

Argent said...

Aelric, thank you for your comment about the Funeral Mass's true intent. This is something that I try to tell the families and it's hard for them to hear it because there are so many details that they are tending to. What they may say are the practical details. But really, praying for the soul and assisting him on his way is the most practical thing that we can do. And none of us can presume that the person who has passed from this earthly life is automatically in heaven beholding the Beatific Vision.

We moderns like to feel consolation in time of grief and so hearing the songs like "On Eagle's Wings" seem comforting. But as our pastor likes to say in his homilies at the Funeral Mass, we're there to pray for the person's immortal soul. The comfort we derive is secondary to that.

This is why the Requiem Mass (E.F.) is so brilliant in its structure. All the physical details, from the unwaxed beeswax candles to the catafalque to the black vestments, the Propers and the incomparable Dies Irae point to the necessity of the whole Church (Triumphant, Suffering, Militant) at prayer for the salvation of souls.