Choosing Liturgical Music for Special Occasions

Considering Gavin’s reflections here and on his web site plus many of my recent experiences working with engaged couples and bereaved families to plan music for weddings and funerals … it all got me thinking.

What is the proper and ideal role of the church musician? What happens when a non-musician or non-liturgist chooses an inappropriate selection? Should it ever be allowed to get to the point where professionals and laity alike wince at the outcome of liturgy?

I tell engaged couples if they stick with my advice, they will have a great wedding celebration. I get very little input from couples these days–questionable or otherwise. In my experience, in a handful of mostly midwestern parishes since 1988, couples seem to have grown more timid over the years. That’s not to say that an occasional crazy bit doesn’t alight on the day of nuptials. Usually, I can steer good intentions to a point where it makes for good liturgy. Once couples understand that the church wedding is first and foremost a worship experience, they’re usually okay with the direction our conversation goes regarding music. I don’t give them options like the Theme from Ice Castles or Richard Wagner–and they don’t ask, so most of my wedding conversations are upbeat ones.

Funerals are another gig. Your church staff has a few days to plan for a funeral, compared with several months for a wedding. Sometimes families are caught off guard. And the ones who aren’t have usually been dealing with the emotional rigor of a wrenching, gradual loss. My first instinct is to cut them some slack. Compared to most weddings, where there may be too much time to plan an ideal liturgy, the funeral ministers have hardly any time at all.

That said, we get lots of musical requests from left field, the left field bleachers, the parking lot, the sports bar across the street … you get my drift. Gavin’s complaint:

(T)he very idea that people like myself and Cantor get PAID to pick music implies that it either requires skill OR that it is in some way a burden. To then turn around and give someone that job (without pay!) is just odd when you consider it.

I can’t argue with this.

That said, most pastors and musicians are reticent about going into confrontation mode with death hanging in the air. Other items are just of more importance pastorally and emotionally. I’ve had a questionable piece of music handed to me and I raise my eyebrow at the pastor. Often he says we just need to swallow it. I tend to trust his judgment.

We had a funeral recently where the music was decent, but some of it was from left field. One half of the family wasn’t talking to the other half. We had five days to plan this funeral, but there were other issues of greater concern to the family and the pastor than the three (!) readings before the Gospel and the lengthy eulogy address after Communion.

The ideal situation in parishes would be for musicians like Gavin and myself to offer advance funeral planning workshops or consultations. This works pretty well for weddings, but given the American squeamishness about dying and death, I don’t think it would catch on too well. The families and individuals inclined to attend such a consultation aren’t likely to be holding “Danny Boy” over your head like a liturgical sword of Damocles.

Any other thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Choosing Liturgical Music for Special Occasions

  1. Liam says:

    Some parishes report great success with policy/procedures/options manuals for weddings and funerals. (Online, click-througable, is even more user-friendly.) Seems to render the process more transparent, fair and less seeming to partake of subjective taste. Part of that is also suggesting where people take their more problematic suggestions (to the rehearsal dinner, wedding reception, wake, collation post-burial, et cet.) That way, it’s not so much about “you cannot do this” as “if you want to do this, the best way/place to do it is there/here”.

    And you might be surprised about offering pre-consultations on funerals.

    Tip for weddings: if the parish musician is stiffed by the bridal party for a bench fee, the minister should withhold the signed marriage certificate until payment is made and cleared….

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    Thanks for discussing such a problematic topic. You are right, wedding selections are not the concern they once were. In fact, I find Protestant weddings – though more lucrative – often the greater aggravation. Funerals on the other hand remain an unsolved difficulty. In urban areas with large Catholic populations, it is not unusual to have several funeral masses a week in a single parish. (Many times I’ve done three in one day.) It simply is not possible to consult with families about selections under those circumstances. In such situations, you are at the mercy of the funeral director to enforce your guidelines. They rarely are able to persuade insistent family members that their request is inappropriate and something else is more suitable.
    There are many other barriers. The entrenchment of outdated repertoire being one and cantors/organists with limited training and capabilities being another. I would go so far as to say that funeral liturgies will be the true test of whether liturgical reform is entering a new phase.

  3. Gavin says:

    Thanks for the write-up!

    My policy for funerals is now that I pick the music. I will accept requests, but I have decided to take the responsibility for music. In my parish, that puts me in a delimma, since everybody knows everybody and funerals often involve half of the parish. So if I just pick the same hymns for each funeral and add requests, it gets repetitive to people. Plus, the congregation doesn’t know that many useful hymns.

    As far as downright bad requests, my boss gave me the call on it. I let slide something pretty bad at my first funeral (“Amazing Grace” sung from the ambo), but still my boss said that if I put my foot down on something like that he will back me. Weddings I am pretty stand-offish on. I don’t know that much for them yet, so I just tell them what I know, or if they don’t know anything it’s Purcell.

    Randolph raises a point I’ve made many times before: funerals are like a “test” for the parish. We can see from requests which hymns and songs have been the favorites of the congregation over time, and what of recent introduction has stuck.

  4. PrayingTwice says:

    Thank God I don’t have to do funerals anymore . . .

  5. And looking East, we do things a bit differently: no Funeral Liturgy at all. Instead, we have a funeral service, called Panikhida among the Slavs, written by St. John of Damascus in the sixth-seventh century, in which all of the texts are fixed, and the music has long been written out. A good version of the Panikhida in English can be found here: The Panikhida can be said at the time of death, or as a commemoration (usually on the 7th, 10th, 30th and 40th days after death, and at a yearly commemoration).

    No eulogies either, at least during the service, although my parish priest will do a homily to console the survivors, and to remind them of the deceased. Although, if I recall, the directives from the Vatican for Latin Catholics are that no eulogies be given during funeral services. Go figure.

    The only Latin funeral in which I had a hand was one a couple of years ago for the father of a dear friend, and a former member of my parish. My friend is in the process of getting his Ph.D. in mediaeval history, and he has a great knowledge of Latin. I got together with two other singers from my choir, we went over the Gregorian chant in both square notes and modern notation, and we did the propers, the Pater Noster, the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei in latin chant. The priest did a Novus Ordo mass mostly in latin, and it was a pleasure to find how much of the readings and the Ordinary that I could understand. Perhaps the first time in more than 20 years that I’ve heard a Latin mass in Los Angeles, and quite probably the last.

    Otherwise, no, I don’t do “Danny Boy”.


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