Image from Threnody’s sample CD
Posted by Tim Clark
(Previously on the GFG: Threnody is a small choir in North Wales, formed up largely from members of Bangor Community Choir, with the sole purpose of singing at any kind of funeral led by a local celebrant – your humble correspondent today – and in particular, to enrich crematorium funerals.)
After weeks – nay, months – of rehearsal, Threnody has now sung at two funerals over the last three weeks. My feelings are hardly neutral, but I have also listened to responses from families, friends and funeral directors afterwards. And the news is encouraging.
At the first funeral, we sang a couple of hymns along with the organ and the congregation. The help with the hymn-singing was what the family initially enquired about. When I visited, I played them recordings of the choir in rehearsal, so they could see if there was anything else we could offer. It was easy for them to decide, to say “no, he wouldn’t have liked that,” “that’s nice, but not for us,” and then “that’s lovely, can you sing it in English, because he wasn’t Welsh?” On my visits, I also take a sheet for families, summarizing what each song is about, and a sheet with the words on. Bit of a fine line there, I don’t want to be “selling” the choir, but if we didn’t think it would improve many a funeral, we wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
The hymns were easy for us, even at short notice, because mostly we simply sang in unison. It made a big difference, especially with the much less well known of the two. We sang “All Through the Night,” at the committal. I wasn’t singing at this point (buttons to press) but I thought it sounded marvellous. Ten voices in four-part harmony.
The response outside afterwards was entirely positive. The youngish funeral director, who must see at least a dozen funerals each month, said it made him well up. I call that a result. He sits in on all of his funerals and is interested in the nature of the ceremony, so I very much valued his response. He was appreciative and supportive of our venture.
The second funeral was for a Scots woman. A Pipe Major, 23 years in the Gordon Highlanders, piped the hearse down from the gates and played in the foyer whilst we came in. Just splendid. The men of the family were in kilts, full highland dress, and acted as bearers. The lady whose life we were commemorating had done much family child-care when she was young, and had children of her own, so in tribute to this side of her, her son asked us to learn a simple and entirely delightful Scots children’s song, “The Three Craws.” A friend of his played the guitar along with us, and we belted it out in unison, accompanied by some of the congregation. I felt it had a wonderful loosening effect on proceedings, and engaged people – I could see their faces softening, plenty of smiles.
When had I visited the son and showed him the list of our songs ready and rehearsed, I pointed out that two of them were Scottish; he didn’t even need to listen to them.
So at a poignant part of the tribute, we sang “The Eriskay Love Lament.” “Sad am I, without thee…”
At the committal, after I read the “Deep peace of the shining stars” blessing, which is quite well-known, we sang a Gaelic blessing that really says the same thing: “Sith Shaimh Leat.” Pronounced something like “She av lat,” “lat” with a long, floating vowel, it is simple to learn, and very beautiful. “Deep peace to you.”
In the ceremony there were also two tracks of recorded music that had a bearing on the life we were commemorating. So music was used, I felt, very effectively, to symbolize various aspects of a life and make them more resonant. The piper and the highland dress added powerful ceremonial elements that are impressive on their own, and of course for many of the mourners, had an individual resonance with a shared past.
The comment I found most useful and interesting was a from a young woman who said that the choir sounded beautiful, and “lovely and light, without the organ.” Now, no prejudice against organs (of any sort) because a swelling organ and a mighty choir is a fine sound, but I would argue that a capella harmony singing is something that connects directly to people – it’s pure voice.
Possibly another feature that draws people in is that we are a community choir. I don’t mean this in any wishful thinking, right-on sort of way – the word “community” is perhaps getting worn a little thin these days. But we are not one of those beautifully-drilled, uniformed Welsh choirs; they produce a wonderful sound to listen to, but perhaps a little less approachable than a bunch of local people of varied ages, both sexes, Welsh, English, and a Scot – nothing excessively formalized. I feel (this may be a bit romantic) that we were singing for and with them, not at them. We are reasonably attired, but not uniformed. We’re just “ordinary” people, and I think that says two things – it says “you could do this” and “we’re with you.”
Some families won’t want us at all, of course. And we can’t really respond to requests, so we have to prepare quite a lot of songs and hymns, in the hope that one or two will be right – and many of them are reasonably well-known. But is seems clear to us already that the sound can mean a lot to people, and that there is plenty of time and space, with the right planning, to get some live singing into your local crem.
If anyone wants to know more about our repertoire, I’ll happily email more details.