On Funerals, Music and Unbelief
As a part of my duties as the music director at the church, I am sometimes asked to lead the music for or sing solos in funerals (so far I haven’t been asked to do music for a wedding but that is one symptom of an aging church). Today I did both: direct two congregational hymns and sing two solos. There are two things that I thought of during the service this afternoon.
While I was singing “How Great Thou Art” (one of the solos) I was struck by how much it doesn’t affect me now. Just recently I had been thinking about writing how hymns can still affect me deeply and cause me to feel “spiritual” things just like they once did when I still at least thought I believed. I assumed that they still would. “How Great Thou Art” used to be one of my favorite (and one of my few favorite) gospel songs.
Generally if a song in a hymnal has a refrain and a lot of dotted rhythms then it is actually a gospel song. Hymns tend to have only verses and focus on the more philosophical and theological aspects of Christianity, rather than the gospel songs which tend to focus a lot on the relational aspects and the hope of eternal life. Gospel songs tend to speak of the “sweet by and by”, crossing the river, and “Beulah land”. Gospel songs are rarely used in “high church” services and can sometimes make up the entirety of a “low church” service. I, being a music snob and snob about most everything in my life, tend to dislike gospel songs. But they are a part of my heritage as a long-time Southern Baptist so some have a special place in my heart. Or they used to, as this post is in the process of explaining. Back to your regularly scheduled post.
So, the last time I sang “How Great Thou Art” at a funeral I realized that the reason it elicited such an emotional response on my part was due to aspects of the music and text, rather than some higher spiritual magic going on. At that time I still believed that I believed, but recognized that most “spiritual” experiences were not so much spiritual as they are psychological. (I now realize that all such experiences are psychological.)
For me, solo singing is much more emotionally invested and personal. Singing songs with the congregation rarely affects me much, but solo singing often does. Singing with a choir often does as well, but there is a much higher personal investment into that type of performance than leading hymns on Sunday morning. I say that to explain that I have sung this song since admitting to myself that I no longer believe but this was the first solo performance of it since that admission.
I expected to feel that “spiritual” high while singing the song today. I expected those sonorities and musical phrasings to bring about this emotional response. I expected the familiarity with the text to make me feel something I once would have called spiritual. It didn’t, not in the least. I did, however, receive many compliments about how “heartfelt” my performance was, et cetera. (Which helps prove my point that there is nothing spiritual happening when such things are felt, I certainly wasn’t feeling the “message” of the song, it just elicits an emotional response from someone who believes the message in the song.)
I guess my connection with that song was purely religious. Now that I have admitted that I no longer believe (and perhaps I had some lingering beliefs in the spring and summer of last year) it doesn’t mean anything to me spiritually, and it isn’t all that great musically. I know that music can still cause me to have “religious” moments because I can listen to something like “He Watching Over Israel” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah (I use this example because it just came up on Pandora) and still feel very moved emotionally, regardless of the religious content. (Just a note, the Youtube video I linked for “He Watching” is the only one I could find that didn’t make me want to stab my ears with an icepick. I am confused by a group that goes by the name “A Cappella Choir” and sings with a piano…)
I share this, mostly, to point out that I must have still had some belief as late as the middle part of last year, even though overall I hadn’t really believed since sometime in 2003 or so.
The other thing that I thought of today, was my grandmother’s funeral last December (she took her own life the week before Christmas last year). I remember thinking then, how pointless most of what was said at her funeral was. I remember thinking, “She isn’t in a better place, she just doesn’t exist anymore.” There was very little comforting to my father or his sisters in the words spoken by the minister. I know this from observing their reactions and hearing my father talk later, they never said so directly. They weren’t comforted by the thought that she may be in a better place, they were deeply hurt and disturbed that she would chose to end her life in this way. (It is entirely possible that she was suffering from depression due to medications she was on, but it is equally as possible that she just couldn’t take the physical pain from her nerve condition anymore.) I remember thinking all of this.
So while I hadn’t admitted to myself that I no longer believed, while I still believed that I believed, and while I may have had some lingering bits of belief still hanging around, for the most part it was gone. Not because my grandmother took her life, or passed away at Christmas, I don’t want anyone to get that idea. I am simply saying that my response to the situation then is evidence that I had already stopped believing before that ever occurred.
And honestly, it was one of the most comforting things I have ever been through. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my grandmother was a “true believer” or not. I don’t have to worry about whether some Christians have it right and suicides go to hell. I don’t have to get my hope and peace from the idea that she is in a better place. She is simply gone. She spent 80 years on this Earth, saw some rough times and saw some wonderful times. She spent the last few years of her life in a lot of pain, and she is no longer in any pain. She lived.
Why should we fear something that is a part of the natural process of life?
So, these are the things I came away from the funeral today with. I have realized that I did still have some bit of belief even just a little over a year ago, but I also realized that it was only a small, tiny shred of my old beliefs. I also realized that I take far more comfort with the idea that life happens, and then it doesn’t happen anymore than I ever did out of the thought that life happened and then we spent an eternity either in Heaven or Hell.