The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Threnody: “a poem or lamentation for the dead,” and a community choir for funerals

Monday, 6 February 2012

Image from Threnody’s sample CD

 

We recently passed on a BBC news report about a pioneering choir in Wales which has been established to bring live singing to funerals here. We have now tracked down its founder, Tim Clark. Here he tells us in his own words more about his exciting and valuable project which, the GFG hopes, will inspire the formation of many other such choirs. 

 

Posted by Tim Clark

 

Big thanks to Charles Cowling and Richard Honeysett for inviting me to post in this hallowed place.

I’m a secular funeral celebrant in North Wales. People who don’t want congregational hymns plus organ (“that would sound too much like church; he didn’t like church!”) have been saying to me that it’s a pity there’s no live singing, either to listen to or to join in with. There seems to be no tradition of choral singing at crematoria, at least not round here. (Is there round your way? I doubt it, but do correct me if I’m wrong.)

I have a view that we should try to get as many funerals (as opposed to committals) as possible out of crems and into somewhere with more time and space. Until we do so, at least Threnody may be able to help stretch the boundaries of a crem funeral a bit, enrich the proceedings. We hope so.

This is how it developed. I’m a member of Bangor Community Choir, which is part of the Natural Voice thing (no auditions, you don’t have to be able to read music, and certainly not to sight-read.) In my capacity as a celebrant I visited a family recently and the bereaved people were saying “pity we can’t sing…,” I thought “Well, I know some people who can sing…” They already sing at charity fundraisers (including the wonderful WaterAid’s “Sing for Water”), at local events, and every week just for the pleasure of it.

I put it to them. I said “We’ll make literally no money; we might get travel paid; I’ve no idea what the uptake will be, if any; it’ll be a lot of work and time, because we’ll need to learn new songs; it’ll be crems, gravesides, village halls, wherever.” The response was splendid; these people are committed to the idea of providing a service at an important time in people’s lives. And they just love to sing.

Nineteen people have stayed the course and are now ready to go. Men and women at a growth point for better, more fulfilling funerals – I salute them. We’ve rehearsed in a chapel, two crems and a village hall.

Music taps into our deepest feelings; we want to help bring that to people in our community by taking live music into all kinds of funerals in all kinds of locations. Music can help to heal us, if we let it. And most people like a good sing!

Internally, we’ve tried to have a co-operative approach; it’s not (much as I admire him) a Gareth Malone thing. We try to decide matters as a group but obviously, someone (me) has to organize and nag a bit. We’ve been coached by Pauline Down, leader of Bangor Community Choir, and Colin Douglas, another local teacher and arranger. We couldn’t have done it without them. Other choir members take on bits of leadership and directional work as needed, which I think is very important.

Each of us has to be confident in our own parts. We sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass, a capella, and our availability will vary; this means we expect that sometimes there might be 16 of us, sometimes eight, so we can’t get away with following the others, as you do in a big choir (well, as I did, anyway!)

We are a community group, so it’s not going to sound as polished as the Treorchy Male Voice Choir. But I think it will sound better than (I hope you don’t think I’m being cruel here) twelve elderly people mostly not singing “Abide With Me,” to an organ and a minister. Point being, those 12 people can join in with us, and we’re there with them and for them.

We don’t have a faith- or a no-faith position, we’re not exclusively a Christian choir, a Humanist choir or any other such label. We feel that what matters is not the differences between people’s beliefs, but their common, human need to mourn those who have died, and to honour their lives. We’ll sing for any kind of funeral.

At the practical level, we sometimes hear an argument that, I feel, slightly misses the point: “People only want music with which they are familiar, a song that meant something to the family and the one they’ve lost. Popular songs, on a CD.”

But we’re not trying to replace that music; we’re seeking to add singing to the ceremony. So have your CD. In addition, Threnody can sing: at the committal; any time during the ceremony where music might fit or be needed; any time (if it is a “known” song) the congregation want to join in. Threnody can sing ‘amen’ after some important words, can sing a farewell at the end, can ask for peace, can sing praises.

We sing of grief, consolation and hope; of peace, of farewell; of the support of friends and of our elemental identity with the natural world; we sing hymns and songs, chants and rounds.

If, as I hope, you want to get something like this going in your area, if it doesn’t already exist, snuggle up to your nearest community choir, especially if they already sing songs from around the world, songs with power and meaning – as opposed to “Da Doo Ron Ron.” (Great song, but not our thing!)

Let’s spread a virus: community singing for funerals in the community.

3 comments on “Threnody: “a poem or lamentation for the dead,” and a community choir for funerals

  1. Monday 6th February 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Thank you very much for your encouragement Vale and Carole.

    Yes, the British tradition of choral singing is a glory not always championed as it might be. I remember dropping in to evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge. A regular sort of occurence, no fuss. They did the ritual business – lovely, but not really known unto such as me. And then they sang some Byrd and Tallis.

    Spell-bindingly, heart-stoppingly, transecendently beautiful.

    OK, we are not the choir of St John’s. But they’d better look to their laurels….

    Carole, I think you are absolutely right about that reluctance, based on a worry that is often, sadly, well-founded.So let’s get singing!

  2. Monday 6th February 2012 at 12:34 pm

    What an absolutely gracious and spirited idea – go for it!

    Because I’m sure that if the option was available around here in Staffordshire…..people would love it. Most who turn down a hymn, tell me they do so because they’re worried about the dull silences and mumblings that it brings – but that they would love to sing and bring everyone together!

    Lots of luck to you all
    Carole
    Civil Celebrant

  3. Vale

    Monday 6th February 2012 at 10:37 am

    I’m quietly proud that one of the things that Britain still leads the world in is it’s tradition of choral singing – and Threnody is a lovely new development (and a blow against the mechanisation of our funeral music too. Well done all.

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