WAKE, AWAKE CANTOR
[This article appeared in Cantor 2/15 (November, 1997):1-3.]
Cantors to the rescue! Please, we desperately need your help! The wakes of our country need overhauling. It will take a minister of uncommon grace and presence, of spirit-filled faith and compassion, with heart of song and lips of praise. Wakes wallow in the mire of sentimentality and artifice. Only one minister is more powerful than a locomotive. Only one minister can staunch the grief of the mourner and change national patterns of ill-bred funeral rites in a single bound. We need a super-hero. Cantors, we need you! In one funeral home after another, we're doing a terrible job of wake services. Customs vary, but you can find scenarios like these: A tired priest leads mourners through a bland recitation of the rosary.
Male mourners smoke and talk loudly in the foyer while female mourners recite the rosary with the priest inside the funeral home chapel.
The funeral home colludes with the family about music for the service, usually settling for sentimental renditions from the top ten funeral hits, recorded by warbling has-beens on scratchy tape and piped through archaic sound systems for the enslavement of artistic taste and the dictatorial governance of emotions for the bereaved. Someone has to stop this. Cantor, that someone can be you.
The ritual text is a good place to begin. Take a look at what should be happening at a funeral vigil.
The Order of Christian Funerals offers two options for the service on the night before a funeral: a vigil and part of the Liturgy of the Hours. The word "rosary" never appears in the text. Rather, it urges a service that highlights scripture. There, grieving Christians find solace.
The Liturgy of the Hours includes an office for the dead. The office of readings, evening prayer, or even night prayer may effectively be used at the wake. If communities have some experience with the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms will help them connect with their faith again in the context of a prayerful sharing of tradition.
To many mourners, the vigil service may seem preferable. Resembling a word service (like the first part of Mass), it draws from familiar prayer forms to highlight scriptures and prayers that will offer consolation to mourners.
The vigil service divides into four parts:
The Introductory Rites include a greeting by the presider, an opening song, and a prayer.
The Liturgy of the Word may feature a first reading, psalm, gospel, and homily.
The Prayer of Intercession leads through a litany for the dead, the Lord's Prayer, and a concluding prayer.
And the Concluding Rite sends the community forth with a blessing. Some Catholics take comfort in the rosary, but it will be obscure for many mourners, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A word service allows everyone to participate more evenly, and provides opportunity for the community to meditate more directly on the faith of the community of the deceased.
The presider need not be a priest. A recognized prayer leader from the community may direct the service--a deacon, a religious, or a lay person representing the believers.
But what would really make this work is you, the cantor. A cantor can assist the presider as a leader and animator of the community of mourners. You can help turn this from a gathering of strangers to a body of believers.
Here's what the Order of Christian Funerals (No. 68) says: "Music is integral to any vigil, especially the vigil for the deceased. In the difficult circumstances following death, well-chosen music can touch the mourners and others present at levels of human need that words alone often fail to reach. Such music can enliven the faith of the community gathered to support the family and to affirm hope in the resurrection.
Whenever possible, an instrumentalist and a cantor or leader of song should assist the assembly's full participation in the singing." The possibilities for song are obvious. In the liturgy of the hours, the singing of a hymn, the psalms, and the canticles enhance this prayer.
In the vigil service, a cantor may lead the opening song, the responsorial psalm, a gospel acclamation, intercessions, the Lord's Prayer, and even a closing song. The difference between offensive taped music and the live voice of an assembly at song would turn wake services from artifice to true expressions of prayer. A cantor can do it.
The location of the service also matters. Consider the parish church. Funeral parlor chapels are interdenominational by design. They may not have well-defined areas for presiding, song-leading, and proclaiming the scriptures. They may not have good participation aids for the assembly of mourners. They may not have good instruments to accompany the singing. But the parish church has it all. The wake service located in the church, following a recognizable liturgical pattern, will feel comfortable to the gathered assembly. When people feel at home the liturgy will flow, and the ministry to the bereaved will be enhanced.
There are some bugs, of course. Not everything is perfect. For example, many mourners will feel offended if they don't hear the rosary. A family member could lead this apart from the scheduled parish prayer service if the family prefers its inclusion.
When the vigil takes place at church, the liturgy suggests that it begin with the rite of reception of the casket, which normally opens the funeral Mass. Although the placing of the pall is optional, it would be especially out of place if people expect time to view the body. However, the idea of greeting the deceased with prayer at the door of the church has merit.
You also don't get much notice for a funeral. This comes with the territory. To have an effective musical program for the vigil requires having a repertoire ready to go at all times. It's not difficult, but it's something else to remember.
We're asking a lot, cantors. We asking you to change a national tradition. But you can do it. With the beauty of your art you can help the bereaved touch the transcendental mystery they strive to comprehend at a time they need it most. Your work can awaken a sleepy wake.
Cantors, please! To the rescue!
Paul Turner serves as pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City, Missouri. He plays piano and organ and writes "Bulletin Inserts" for Modern Liturgy and "Storytelling" for Christian Initiation.