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On Funerals, Music and Unbelief

December 5, 2010

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2010 5:32 pm

    I was somehow unaware of how your grandmother died. I’m sorry.

    This was a very good post. It spoke to the musician in me as well as the ex-christian in me.

    • December 6, 2010 9:36 pm

      It isn’t the sort of thing you post to Facebook, but it is an important part of my story (it’s also been a year now so it is a bit easier to think about).

      I’m glad you liked the post!

  2. Anon permalink
    December 7, 2010 3:42 pm

    Very sorry about your grandmother, in some strange way we are connected through similar experience, I also had a grandmother that may have taken her life with medication while suffering from pain and depression. It’s a very painful spot in my life as I really would like to have a frank discussion with a family member about who she was, what was she like and how the death occured, but alas, she can never be spoken of as it may have been ****gassspppp**** suicide (even if accidental), therefore shaming Jesus and apparently discounting any good and wonderful things about her to the dustbin incase Jesus is mad now. I am just so very, very angry about how religious beliefs and fears in my family have put a barrier between myself and coming to know more about my seemingly lovely grandmother.
    You have my sypmathy.

    • December 7, 2010 8:05 pm

      I’m very sorry to hear that. My family, as far as I know, does not believe that suicide is the “unforgivable sin” that some Christians see it as.

  3. limey permalink
    December 14, 2010 12:05 pm

    An interesting post. I had a ‘moment’ the other week when I suddenly realised that I could sing the hymns and songs and not feel either spiritual (like when I was a Christian) or guilty now that I am not.

    It was an oddly liberating moment. Suddenly I felt free to sing the songs that I liked, because I do still like many of the songs, but not have any baggage as a result. The songs I am not so keen on can be sung softly as per usual.

    I have put much thought into the psychological aspect of faith and how the songs affect people, but there is obviously a connection of some sort.

    • December 14, 2010 9:27 pm

      Yes, I’m sure there has been study done on how music affects our emotions and mental state, and study done on how lyrics can do the same. (In fact, I’d imagine that music therapists have a bit of insight into this.) However, I haven’t studied any of that so I can’t speak directly.

      I do know that music very easily affects me, but I also have now discovered that my intellect is able to overcome the affect that religious lyrics have on me! :) (I was actually very glad to discover this.)

  4. MaryLynne permalink
    December 23, 2010 10:12 am

    I just found your blog via “Godless Girl” in the post about her car getting scraped off. Thank you! I’m adding you to my list to check regularly. I’ve been lucky in that my communities seem to be mostly cultural Catholic and personal Christian – losing my faith hasn’t cost me much. I’m still not out to most people in my life, and I’m feeling the way on how and when best to do that. I can’t wait to hear more about your journey.


    • December 24, 2010 9:58 pm

      Thanks for stopping by! I haven’t been updating as regularly lately, but I do have a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a new post soon (aside from the very short one I’m about to make).

      It sounds like you don’t live in the South. :)

  5. December 28, 2010 11:58 am

    I’m very sorry that your grandmother chose to leave all of you that way. I can’t imagine going through that kind of loss.

    As I reflect on my father’s death (cancer), I also feel the same as you about how comforting it is that there is no afterlife, no worries about the qualifications for getting there, and no reason to use canned words of comfort that may or may not be true. Because we will not see our loved ones later, I think we can grieve in healthier ways and find a better sense of “closure” (I almost hate using that word, sorry) without dealing with deluded beliefs in imaginary places.

    On another note (pun intended), I love how I learn things from you about music. When I think “gospel music,” I remember my days in a black gospel choir in college, praising the Lord with syncopated rhythms (yes, this white girl can clap!), Kirk Franklin’s music, a lot of shouting/praying aloud, and call-and-response style singing. Southern Gospel music has never been a part of my Christian culture, but I can recognize it anywhere. It’s quite distinctive in tone.

    • December 28, 2010 4:46 pm

      Well I’ve spent my entire life in the south, so I get a little bit of both but more of the Southern Gospel.

      As to the unbeliever view on death, I think it is a much healthier way to grieve. It also leads to a much healthier view on life. With no hereafter we should try to get as much out of life as we can. We only get one, very short life and then it is over. We should also do what we can to make the world a better place for those who come after us.

      If taken to the extreme, the Christian view of death leads to not caring about the future of the world and not putting as much into enjoying life, rather to “build up treasures in heaven” and care only about the “sweet by and by.”


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