There’s an art to playing music for funerals. Okay, it’s not much of an art, but there are certain tricks to be learned if you want to survive with your nerves in good condition.
Serving as musician for a funeral is much easier than doing a wedding. In the first place it takes no rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, and the person being honored never complains if you do something wrong. I’m not making light of funeral music. If it’s well planned, music can be a great comfort for those in need, and if it’s not well planned then you can make it work.
I have no idea how many funerals I’ve played but I know that as I grow older I spend more time banging out “How Great Thou Art,” than “Here Comes the Bride.” The pattern is usually something like this: I get a call from the funeral director asking me to play for a person’s last rites. If he’s on the ball he’ll first tell me that they’ve died, otherwise it often comes as a shock. He’ll give me the time and place, and then I’ll ask if the family has any special requests. Often as not they don’t and that’s fine. I have a computer file titled “Funeral Stuff.” I recall one memorable funeral where the deceased lady asked me to come to her home and play the music ahead of time. Okay, she wasn’t deceased yet, but she loved music and said that she’d hate missing it, so I went to her house and did a little funeral concert complete with coffee and blueberry muffins. She even asked the vocalists to come and sing for her. This may sound morbid but we actually had a great time.
Funeral venues fall into three general categories: churches, old funeral homes, and modern funeral homes. If you’re playing for a church funeral you can usually see what’s going on and you have a pretty good handle on things. The newer funeral homes tend to be embarrassed by the sight of the keyboard player and put him or her in another room to play and watch the proceedings on a video screen. I guess that’s okay, but I wonder why they don’t just use a CD player. At least you don’t have to wear pants if you’re out of sight. But it’s the older funeral homes that provide the real adventures. I once played in a Pike County funeral home where their ancient electric organ was in the kitchen. I didn’t mind. I was close the coffee pot. The former Buchanan Funeral Home on State Street had its organ on the second floor with the festivities taking place on the floor below. Bill Buchanan had installed a little red light in front of organ. When it came on that meant the funeral was ready to begin and I was to shut up. Once the light dimmed out that meant I could start the postlude music. The only trouble came when young John Buchanan would forget to signal to me that the audience was out of the building and on the way to cemetery. More than once I found myself playing the exit music accompanied by the sound of a vacuum cleaner on the floor below, the crowd long gone. The lady janitor told me she didn’t want to stop me because she was enjoying the entertainment.
I shouldn’t complain. At least these funerals were indoors. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of playing “Amazing Grace” on your bagpipes in zero-degree weather when the instrument decides to explode. These terrors of the Scottish Highlands are constructed purely by 17th-century standards . . . no metal clips, fasteners or straps. Each pipe is held in place purely by friction provided by a string of hemp, and hemp is subject to the variations in temperature. Everything about you contracts when you’re wearing a kilt on a snowy hillside, and that includes the hemp in your pipes. Just as I reached, “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” the hemp gave way and pipes started shooting off in all directions, giving the grieving family in the funeral tent even more reason to grieve.
I’ve only played the accordion for one funeral. Afterwards the undertaker told me, “I’ve never heard anyone play accordion for a funeral. I thought they caused funerals.”
Of course the upside to being a funeral musician is that at the time of a family’s deepest heartache you can actually do something that helps a bit. I couldn’t cook a casserole to save my soul but at least I can knock out “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” on a keyboard. We all want to be a comfort to those we love and I do thank God for the gift of music. . . even when our hemp comes loose.