From Sorrow to Hope: Choosing music for the funeral service

In a funeral service, as in any service of worship, well-chosen music can aid sorrowing people to lift their hearts to the God of all comfort. The community of mourners unites in song to express its sorrow and grief to the Man of Sorrows, and to rejoice in the gift of life from the One who has died. In song the mourners express together the faith that is the foundation of their recovery and renewal in hopeful living.

The prayer song of the sorrowing may begin with a plaintive "I cried out to God to help me: in distress and sorrow, hear me" (PsH 77:1) and crescendo to "By the sea of crystal, saints in glory stand" (v. 1 of PsH 620, TH 549). Following the singing of "Precious to God the dying of his saints" (PsH 116:5) with "Ten thousand times ten thousand give glory to the Lamb" (PsH 619, RL 580, TH 323) can stir sorrowing hearts to hope.

In developing the funeral service, the pastor, musicians, and family members may find helpful the following principles:

Express both grief and hope.
There are two purposes for music at a funeral. Both must be present, though the emphasis on one or the other will depend on the situation. First, we need to communally express the reality of our loss, grief, and pain at the death of the loved one before the God who sees and hears our grief. Second, we need to express the hope of believers in the equally great reality of eternal life and God's coming kingdom. We need to lift the hearts of the mourners to the clear message of this hope, even when it appears that the one who has died was not a believer.

When the pastor and others who plan the service keep these two purposes clearly in mind, they will be able to choose music that helps the grieving family and community look above the present hour to the eternal God. Both of these purposes are beautifully met, for example, in Henry F. Lyte's familiar "Abide with Me" (PH 543, PsH 442, RL 440, TH 402), where the constant presence of the Lord is discovered precisely in our grief. And Goerg Neumark's "If You But Trust in God to Guide You" (PH 282, PsH 446, RL 151, TH 670) recognizes our need and our uncertainty, and directs us to the changeless love of God.

Make sure corporate music predominates.
Pastors who appreciate the value of experiencing and expressing grief as a believing community will encourage congregational singing during the funeral. Great comfort can be gained from the entire congregation singing the church's hymns and psalms. Music and song may also be included wherever possible in the various gatherings surrounding the funeral: at the funeral home, in the committal service, and even during the customary fellowship hour following the service.

Focus on God.
Music at a funeral is most helpful when its focus is on God rather than on ourselves. The sorrowing heart needs the assurance that rests in knowing God's sovereign grace, constant covenant keeping, and rich knowledge of his people. "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "How Great Thou Art" are two favorite hymns, precisely because they offer this genuine hope and comfort.

Balance family choices with the considerations of the larger community.
Often family members will select songs that were treasured by the deceased person in life. While using favorites can be an excellent place to start, a word of caution is in order: not all these songs may really offer needed comfort or direct the heart to God. They may be only vaguely related to our present experience of both sorrow and hope.

Hymns or anthems that truly comfort us and assist us in grieving lift us up from genuine depths to true and specific realities. Family and personal choices should be complemented by the communal songs of the church, which reside primarily in the pew hymnal. Respect the choices of the family, but surround them with the song of the church of all ages.

Involve the choir.
If a choir regularly participates in congregational worship, they should be encouraged, if possible, to gather also for a funeral service. A choral offering of song provides a gift from the congregation to the grieving family and community. The choir need not sing an elaborate anthem; singing one stanza of a congregational hymn may be very appropriate. For example, "Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven" (PH 478, PsH 475, RL 144, TH 76) may be sung with choir only on the second stanza.

If a choir will be participating, those responsible for planning the service need to recognize that choir rehearsal and preparation requires special coordination. And because of demands of work and other activities, planners should understand that the time of the service may have to be adjusted to permit a good balance of singers to be present (late afternoons or evenings may be more convenient for a larger number of singers). While coordination is less complicated for a small ensemble or a solo, the choir better emphasizes the corporate nature of the assembly. Soloists or groups of singers should be aware that they are expressing not merely their own feelings; they are expressing the praise and prayer of the assembled community.

Plan for the acoustical setting.
Acoustics should not be forgotten in the process of planning the musical aspects of the service. Usually the acoustics are much better in a church than in a funeral home (one of many reasons commending the church as the place for the funeral). When the service is held in the funeral home, carpet and other sound-absorbing decoration may pose special obstacles for singing. Also, instruments may not be adequate for supporting congregational singing or for accompanying a choir or soloist.

But even if the acoustical setting for the funeral is poor, the community gathered should sing. Recorded music should be discouraged as a substitute for singing; grief and hope should arise from those present. The worshiper must be able to offer up genuine prayer and crying to God.

Lead with strength and confidence.
In the context of a culture that denies death and its reality, it's not surprising that we usually assume funeral music should be soft, slow-moving, and weak-sounding, and that triumphant sounds are inappropriate. The Christian reality is that while death is the last enemy, through Christ it is no longer a powerful enemy. Death marks the believer's entrance into eternal life. So while the pain and loss of those left behind are real, the triumphant home-going of the deceased should also be reflected in the way music is used. Mourners do not benefit from weak and indecisive singing or accompaniment. They are seeking firm and confident assurance. At the Christian funeral, psalms and hymns are not sung to cover up the pain or to distract the sorrowing from death's reality. The style of playing and singing we use for each hymn or psalm should be appropriate to its content and setting. Triumphant hymns should be played and sung in the spirit in which they were composed. For example, Genevan Psalm 68:1 and 6, which includes the words "Give praise to God with reverence deep; he daily comes our lives to keep" should demonstrate the vigorous praise and sturdy confidence which both text and tune imply. "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" should never become a dirge. When praising God for the life and gifts of the person who has been taken, or for the confidence we have in God's enduring promises, let both organ and congregation play and sing appropriately. Even hymns or spirituals that directly express grief should not lack strength or confidence.

Songs for the Funeral

Music for Congregation

In Life and in Death (see inside back cover) lists over seventy psalms and hymns in the Psalter Hymnal organized in three categories: Sorrow and Grief, Confidence and Trust, and The Triumph of God's Redeemed Children.

Music for Choirs

"Come, Ye Blessed," John Prindle Scott,
arr. Carl Deis [g. schirmer, inc., NY]

"I Greet Thee, My Redeemer,"
arr. Clarence Dickenson [h. w. Gray Co., inc.]

"If You Will Only Let God Guide You,"
arr. Roderick R Thompson
[Fred Bock Music Company]

SATB Choir Settings from the New Psalter
Hymnal, Book 1, arr. Dale Grotenhuis
[Available from: 240 3rd St. NE, Sioux Center, IA 51250]

"Sine Nomine," Vaughan Williams,
arr. Earl Rosenberg [Carl Fischer, inc., NY]

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is,"
Shelley [G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

"What a Friend We Have in Jesus,"
arr. Gilbert Martin [Hinshaw Music, Inc.]

Music for Duets

"I Waited on the Lord," Felix
Mendelssohn [G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

"O Death Where Is Thy Sting?" from the
Messiah, G. F Handel [G. ScWrmer, inc., NY]

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is,"
Shelley [G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

Wedding Blessings, Paul Bunjes, ed.
"The Lord Bless You," J.S. Bach
[Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO]

Music for Solos

Children of the Heavenly Father, Three Swedish Folk Hymns, arr. John Ferguson
[Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN]

"Children of the Heavenly Father"
"Thy Holy Wings"

52 Sacred Songs You Like to Sing [G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

"O Rest in the Lord," Felix Mendelssohn
"O Savior Hear Me," Christoph Willibald
Von Gluck

Sacred Song Masterpieces, collected and
arr. by Carl Fredrickson [R.D. Row Music
Company, a division of Carl Fischer, Inc., NY]

"Thy Secret Place," Felix Mendelssohn
"Trust in the Lord," Josef Haydn

Sacred Songs, J.S. Bach [International Music Company, NY] (#12, 22, 24)

Sing a Song of Joy, K. Lee Scott, ed. [Augsburg
Fortress, Minneapolis, MN]

"A Song of Trust," Franz Schubert

"In Bright Mansions Above," setting by
K. Lee Scott

"God Our Ever Faithful Shepherd," J.S.

"Jesu, Thou Art Watching Ever," G.F

Songs Of Rejoicing [Selah Publishing Company, Accord, NY]
"Christ the Victorious," Alfred V. Fedak

Spiritual Songs, Antonin Dvorak [G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

"The Lord is My Light," Frances Allitsen
[Boosey & Hawkes, NY]

"The Ninety-First Psalm," McDermid
[G. Schirmer, Inc., NY]

Reformed Worship 24 © June 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.