From Perfunctory Transfer to Transformative Experience

MAX BECKMANN-XX-Small deathbed scene

The funeral consumers I meet aren’t excessively distressed by today’s funerals costs. More frequently, they are infuriated by the insensitive way funeral firm personnel, in the presence of family, transfer the dead to the funeral home from the beds they died in. “Then these two men in dark suits walked in, suggested we might want to leave the room, and we heard the zipping of a bag. Then they left. It felt like they were in a hurry to get to an appointment, or something.” You yourself have heard this complaint. Funeral home transfer teams can bow and offer condolences until they’re blue in the face, but if they can’t manage a compassionate, careful collection of a deceased person from the room he or she recently died in with grieving family members looking on, they have botched the funeral, and the funeral home’s owner might spend the next three days trying to redeem the whole firm.

It is hard for such a loaded exchange to look as good or seem as smooth as anyone might desire. But the honesty and transparency of the moment is critical. Detaching medical equipment from the body, quickly reaching to support limbs that might hang down and look a little frightening in order to get the deceased person onto the funeral home’s stretcher–all of those moments in the presence of family can be painfully awkward for the funeral home’s hard-working (sometimes up-all-night) trade service or transfer team. In essence, this is a changing of the guard.

But I think success stems from engaging families more in the moment instead of fearing their reactions and trying to shield them from the transfer’s inevitable imperfections. The relocation of the dead from place of death to the next stop on the journey truly holds the most amazing, ceremonial potential! Some transfer teams see this moment of the funeral as the “worst” part when in fact, they could see it as the best and take greater pride in it. (Dare I say that many of the families wishing to pay less for a casket, would pay more for an improved transfer-from-place-of-death experience?)

We need to adapt to modern families wishing to witness as much as they can, even when what those families are choosing to see is difficult. It is not our job to remove them from an experience in order to “protect” them from it. Let’s face it, the popularity of cremations without any funeral parlor visitation combined with the success of the hospice movement and home funeral have created an environment where the time spent at place of death is the viewing.

At this modern on-the-spot ceremony, family members may have been singing, praying, crying and just exchanging stories at the bedside in the 90-minutes since death occurred. The tributes have commenced before the funeral firm’s arrival! Hospice workers, hospital chaplains, and death midwives are facilitating this new kind of working “wake” immediately after death exquisitely well. And families are navigating the liminal space–the time between death and disposition– as best they can.

Enter the funeral director (or the funeral home’s representatives), fresh from the stresses of the highway. Yow. Not an easy moment.

Addressing my brethren directly, I’d like to demonstrate how funeral directors and funeral home personnel can support, even uplift, a grieving family at point of transfer.

1. Clear your head and fill it with compassion on your way to the hospital, nursing facility or home where the death has occurred. Arrive at the agreed-upon time. Stand at the door of the room, knock softly, then enter. Slowly offer your hand to family members, extend condolences. You’ve been doing that with every job, right? What’s new is what comes next.

2. Ask what the people in the room called the deceased, and if you may use that name for a moment. Walk to the bed, touch the deceased’s shoulder, and introduce yourself to the deceased by name and say you are there to help. This is a leap, I know. But hang in there with me. What is said next is open to personal style and cause of death. Among the possibilities: a moment of silence staring into the face of the deceased (telegraphing nothing but a calm, confident demeanor in death’s presence). A very brief prayer could follow if the family is religious and no clergy is present (“God full of mercy who dwells on high, grant perfect rest on the wings of your divine presence…”). Or you could reflect out loud upon the fact that death is “a labor,” and that the deceased has successfully gotten to that labor’s other side. Death is not a lost battle.

3. Turn to next-of-kin and ask if everyone has said their goodbyes for now. (You must be willing to spend more time here if family members have still not completely collected themselves. You may have arrived too quickly, so be prepared to back off. Chances are good that they are ready, but you have no good reason to rush them if they’re not.) Check, of course, for wedding rings and personal belongings. Remove if necessary, and offer to the next-of-kin. (There are legal papers to sign that declare that person the custodian of the those belongings now that may need to be signed.)

4. Again (now, this is key)–address the deceased by name and then say, “Forgive us in the coming minutes if we seem in any way awkward or clumsy as we take you to the funeral home. We are doing our level best, and we promise to continue to do our best as long as we, and the others we work with, are taking care of you.”

I have found that even the most secular families appreciate this. Soul or no soul. People care that you care and that you are announcing your caring intentions. Did you notice how the family just took a huge sigh of relief?

5. At this point, turn to the family, and say, “Listen, it’s fine at this point if you guys stay in the room, but you need to make a little path for our stretcher here. Or– it’s up to you–you might want to wait outside in the hallway.” If you’re a bit inexperienced and worried about being graceful with the body, your dream may come true: the family may tearfully retreat to the hallway and let you and your partner do the lifting in private. I feel grateful when I work for a family that wants to stay in the room. And, if I’ve got a do-it-yourself crowd, I might allow some family help at the feet, in the lift to the rolling cot, at this point. They may not want to do that much, in the tight space allowed, save tuck the sheet under. Either way, the offer to work collaboratively is what counts.

6. Now it’s almost time to zip, but don’t zip yet. Tell the family, “I’m going to cover and close but before I do, is there any music you would like to put on?” Any smart phone in the room on speaker creates this splendid opportunity. Any flowers on the bedside table? Ask the family if they’d wish to have the deceased exit with flowers in hand. Gently tug stems out of the vase, and tuck them in.

7. Start slowly zipping at the feet. Continue to zip at an excruciatingly slow pace. This is just like a witnessed casket close. Stay formal. Be elegant. Go slow. Remember the compassion you brought through the door? Use it now most of all.

8. Stop your zipping at the base of the neck, with face of the deceased still exposed. Look up, and lock your eyes on the faces of the family members, indicating non-verbally: “Is it okay to zip over the face?” Give them a moment to gaze at their loved one’s face one last time. Wait for the nod. If you’re not getting the nod, wait some more. The family eventually will nod when ready. And you’ve been helpful in preparing them for the road ahead.cot cover kingsley black large-1

9. I take my leave with this cot cover from FinalEmbrace.com on top of the stretcher, gliding to music, as we roll down the hall. When the death has occurred in a residence, the exit may be even more effusive and elaborate. A parting poem? Solo sung by a family member? Absolutely. Even more terrific things can occur when the whole funeral was held in the home and you are now on your way straight to the crematory or cemetery. Louder music, rose petals cast as you graciously depart. Children or pets present? Get them involved too. This is it. This is now. No one will ever be quite the same again.


Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director who serves Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park families, helping them create distinctive funerals and memorial services. She specializes in green burials in cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council, simple burials within the NYC- Metropolitan area, home funerals, and cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery’s gorgeous crematory chapels.

Thanks to Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, and Olivia Bareham whose trainings have strengthened my resolve to be a family-focused funeral director. Grateful thanks also to Kateyanne Unullisi, the celebrant and genius behind The Emerge Foundation, for her thoughtful notes on an earlier draft of this article.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Danny Boy” Revisited

th-25It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.

So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. th-23Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).

4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT “DANNY BOY” AFTER THE FUNERAL’S CLOSING.
This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.

Good Funeral Music: “It is Well With My Soul”

Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford

Obviously, the funeral for an elderly person who lived a productive life is different from the service for a young one taken too early, but when a period of suffering was endured before death, there is often, as you know, a sense of relief at the service that can be supported with the right music.

“It is Well With My Soul” is one Christian hymn that expresses faith in God and peace with loss. It’s a predictably terrific number for the funerals or memorial services of people who were ready to die.

This blockbuster, which you’ll probably recognize as soon as you hear it, was written in the late 1800s by a man named Horatio Spafford who’d lost almost everything dear to him. The melody is by Philip Bliss, and said to be his best. I feel that hymns like this one can be adapted and edited to fit the beliefs of any family.

So I spent a good three hours listening to dozens of versions of “It is Well With My Soul” (also called “When Peace Like a River”) on YouTube.com. From Mahalia Jackson to Alison Krauss, I enjoyed every moment, and will present here versions helpful to you in thinking out how many different ways this historic hymn could be performed in your locality. Here is a straightforward version sung by Jodi Campbell with scrolling lyrics, good for starters. Here’s the excellent B4 Quartet’s interpretation. Ashley Carver performed “It is Well” on the violin at the graveside service for Rebecca Dumapias Paular as pall bearers approached the grave with the casket. Want it big? Here’s the Chancel Choir and the Sanctuary Orchestra. And finally, here is my pick for the funeral music connoisseur: Marion Williams singing “It is Well With My Soul” in 1962 at the first gospel concert ever performed in the Netherlands. With your own local talent, you’ll come up with your own transporting version.

Opening lyrics:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain:
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

An Unforgettable Home Funeral

1947397_607967775963306_499716301_nLos Angeles certified death midwife Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings gives grieving families the necessary support to conduct funerals and vigils in their living rooms, just as they were held a century ago. Yes, that’s right. The deceased never “steps foot” in a funeral home prep room or chapel, and has either died at home or been carefully conveyed there from hospice or hospital. Home funerals can last from just a few hours to several days. The deceased is generally placed on a massage table or bed (decorated with colorful fabrics) or even a hand-decorated cremation casket, and dry ice is sometimes used to keep the body cool.

Bareham is a former board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a group with which I am also affiliated. She and other guides in almost every state now are reviving the old-fashioned wake, home vigil or viewing thought by many to endow death–be it sudden or expected– with greater meaning. You see, when death is brought into a residence, the home becomes a memorable venue for this highly sacred undertaking, a savoring of liminal time and space. Wakes like this are slower paced and highly participatory with family members bathing and dressing the deceased, annointing the body with fragrant essential oils, then sitting with the dead all day or night, witnessing, comforting and grieving in a waving natural rhythm until the vigil concludes.

When baby Darrius was born still, Sacred Crossings helped the family bring him home for a vigil and celebration of his ‘life in the womb’ with a loving community of friends and relations. His mother Emma later said “It helped me so much to be able to hold and bathe and dress my baby and show him to all the wonderful people who were looking forward to meeting him. It helped me to come back to reality after a very bad dream.”

Words cannot convey the beauty of these funerals, so I best be quiet for a moment and let you watch. I have to warn you, however, that this gorgeous video may well stir strong emotion and perhaps should not be viewed by anyone who has been close to an infant death in recent weeks.

Bareham was trained by renowned home funeral guide Jerrigrace Lyons, friend, mentor and loving sister of anyone engaged in this beautiful work. I completed Lyons’ Level III last September and now supervise these perfectly legal home funerals in New York. (Video courtesy of Sacred Crossings.)

What Franz Schubert Requested as He Lay Dying

People sometimes ask me how working with the dead has changed my life. And for a long time, I didn’t know how to answer. At first, I said that I was now somewhat less afraid of death, which may be true, but then this response began to seem disingenuous, and it sat less well with me.th

Here is what I know, and experience as a fact: since becoming a funeral director, I’ve been having powerful experiences with music–sometimes in the hearse, sometimes in the chapel, sometimes just at home–in a way I never have before. It’s like my ears and brain are communing with music and processing it in a new way–as though the deceased person stretched out in the back of the car, or just on my mind in that moment, has greatly enlarged my own personal sound system.I’m receiving music like posted mail, and ferreting out its messages. For this, I am grateful. So perhaps I can inspire you to hear music better also, and connect with all it has to say about life’s labored wayfairings.

Here’s a wintery, grief-infused, transporting piece of music one might spend a lifetime internalizing. It’s Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C sharp minor, Opus 131. It is forty minutes long, and it’s the piece of music that caused composer Franz Schubert to say when he heard it, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Schubert, in fact, later requested that this quartet be played as he lingered, ill and dying in his brother’s apartment late in the year of 1827. Classically-trained musicians know this piece well. But you see, I didn’t until I began to be attentive to good grieving music. Some parts are easier to like than others–just like life! What would be your last request? And how does music help you wrap your arms around loss and sadness?

Marvin Hamlisch’s “Memories” Magnified Six Hundred Times

Have you ever said to yourself, “If I hear the Marvin Hamlisch song ‘The Way We Were’ one more time, I think I’m gonna die?” The ballad seems haunted by all those “memories” it addresses!

Well, when the prolific Mr. Hamlisch did die in August 2012, funeral planners must have sensed that “The Way We Were” had run its last laps. So they gave Barbra Streisand a break, and assigned the song to a chorus of 600 volunteers. Brilliant. Here’s how the choral version of “The Way We Were” sounded at Hamlisch’s funeral at Congregation Emanu-El in New York. Much enlarged and pretty good, I think.

Good Funeral Music: “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds”

rainbow_clouds_4_by_rangan2510-d58bdxg

Maya Angelou‘s life was steeped in poetry and music, so her memorial service did not disappoint. The biggest gust of gorgeous uplift came from R&B artist Alyson Williams when she sang “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds.” I’m linking to gospel singer Sallie Martin’s interpretation of the hymn for your funeral planning purposes (so you can hear it sort of straight). But you can watch Alyson Williams singing it at last weekend’s service here. And here’s the nicest find of the night: Maya Angelou herself talking about why the song, an African-American spiritual from the 1800s, meant so much to her.

When God shut Noah in the grand old ark,
he put a rainbow in the clouds.
When thunders rolled and the sky was dark
God put a rainbow in the clouds.

God put a rainbow in the clouds,
(God put a rainbow in the clouds)
When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore,
God put a rainbow in the clouds.

Every song, every eulogy delivered at the service has been posted on Youtube.com. You just have to put the individual pieces together.

Good Funeral Music: “Smile When Your Heart is Aching”

A young lady sang “Smile” for her deceased grandfather at our funeral home yesterday and people in attendance felt their hearts dissolve. Folks buried their heads in their hands. It was gorgeous.

“Smile” was written in 1936 by Charlie Chaplin, of all people, and the melody was used in the film “Modern Times.” Nat King Cole and Judy Garland recorded it in the 1950s when lyrics were added. There are now two Garland versions online–she sang it differently every time–but what follows is the best to study (despite poor video quality) for funeral use.

“Smile” was Michael Jackson’s favorite song–or so said Brooke Shields in her eulogy to him–and his life’s story (like Judy’s) imbued his recording with extra meaning. Here’s brother Jermaine singing it with great emotion at Jackson’s funeral July 7, 2009, Staples Center, Los Angeles.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by…

If you smile
With your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just…

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just…

Smile.

Beethoven’s Last March

Beethovan's Funeral, March 29, 1827

Beethoven’s Funeral, March 29, 1827


You pretty much have to take a moment to appreciate this: 187 years ago this week, the vibration and flash of March snowstorm lightning woke the deaf, ailing 56-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven who’d been confined to his bed in Vienna for months. Startled from coma, the composer opened his eyes, raised his fist to rail against the sky, then collapsed back, dead.

Three days later, on March 29th, 1827, at least 10,000 grief-striken Viennese fans and citizens, and every local musician Beethoven had inspired, encouraged or berated, gathered for a funeral march with “simple” casket from the yard outside the Schwarzspanierhaus church to the more wooded area of Wahring, where a professional actor delivered a formal funeral oration written by playwright Franz Grillparzer who I wish could come back to teach us the fine art of obit and eulogy writing. Here’s the whole transcript (you have to plow through an opening graph referring to Germany as the Fatherland), or just savor here the best last bit of testimonial in honor of a pure-hearted, tortured man who gave the world so much.

“No living man enters the halls of immortality. The body must die before the gates are opened. He whom you mourn is now among the greatest men of all time, unassailable forever.

“Return to your homes, then, distressed but composed. And whenever, during your lives, the power of [Beethoven’s] works overwhelms you like a coming storm; when your rapture pours out in the midst of a generation yet unborn; then remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died we wept!

Here are two pieces of music that were played at Beethoven’s funeral services, one composed by him, one not: Beethoven’s Equali for four somber trombones, and Luigi Cherubini’s “Requiem in C Minor,” which the discerning LvB admired, and you’ll love too when you listen to it.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Be Thou My Vision”

I sat up until two forty a.m. this St. Patrick’s Day morn, seeking to find the best in Irish funeral music, but twice the song I thought I’d feature proved to be Scottish.

Irish village funeral

Irish village funeral

This was the case with “The Parting Glass” and “Flowers of the Forest,” both amazing songs to absorb in sad times.

I’ll leave you with “Be Thou My Vision,” a favorite in many churches, said to be adapted from a sixth century Irish monastic text and merged with an Irish folk melody called “Slane” much more recently. I like the following three versions of “Be Thou My Vision” for funeral centering and settling, maybe to be played before the service actually starts. Listen to it this way on piano and cello, and this way, as sung by folk singer Andy Hull. Want it to reverberate throughout the sanctuary? Listen to this interpretation through four-part harmonized flutes. Gorgeous. Have a blessed and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and welcome to the many new readers brought to me by the write-up in the NYTimes. Post a comment if you know of an Irish funeral song I’ve missed.

I know, I know. “Danny Boy” of course. Here are my thoughts on how to make “Danny Boy” sound new again.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Good Funeral Music: “O God of Loveliness”

“O God of Loveliness” is a colossal hymn of undivided love and devotion. At a funeral, it’s a knock-out when the casket’s on the move. Listen to it below, as sung by a small chorus, to perceive how it might sound in the sanctuary, and here it is, exquisitely employed, at minute 1:50 in this video of John F. Kennedy’s funeral, where it follows the presentation of the casket and a stirring version of “Hail to the Chief.”

O God of loveliness, 0 Lord of heaven above,
How worthy to possess my heart’s devoted love.
So sweet thy countenance, so gracious to behold
That one, one only glance to me were bliss untold.

Thou art blest Three in One, yet undivided still,
Thou art the One alone, whose love my heart can fill.
The heavens and earth below were fashioned by thy Word,
How amiable art Thou, my ever dearest Lord.

To think Thou art my God,–O thought forever blest!
My heart has overflowed with joy within my breast.
My soul so full of bliss, is plunged as in a sea,
Deep in the sweet abyss of holy charity.

O loveliness supreme, and Beauty infinite,
O ever flowing Stream and Ocean of delight,
O Life by which I live, My truest Life above,
To Thee alone I give my undivided love.

Good Funeral Music: Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile”

Chamber music at the beginning of a funeral or memorial service doesn’t get any better than this: Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile movement from the String Quartet #1 in D Major, Opus 11. “Play this at my funeral,” I always say to my husband. Nothing recorded is as successful at capturing life’s sweetness, the delicacy of our attachments to one another. The piece opens the doors of the heart, exposing its protected corridors. Can’t fail. It’s exquisite. Apparently, Tchaikovsky overheard the sorrowful folk melody being whistled by a house painter at his sister’s home in Kamenka, Russia. When performed for Leo Tolstoy, the mighty, bearded author is said to have wept like a baby. Thanks to savvy reader Susannah Brooks who suggested I also post Bobby McFerrin’s interpretation, which stirs the heart and imagination.

Good Funeral Music: “Morning Has Broken”

As a director in arrangements conference, I often ask the question “Who in the family can sing?” You don’t have to hire a soloist (though this is certainly a nice idea). You don’t need to cue recorded music from your brother-in-law’s iPhone into the funeral home’s sound system. Members of your family can improve the funeral by singing as simply and as well as they can. In fact, an amateur’s tentative, imperfect voice is often more powerful at the funeral than any professional’s.

Have a listen to this version of “Morning Has Broken” (an old English hymn popularized by Cat Stevens) that I found on YouTube.com. Your family’s version could convey, at the close of the funeral, that a new day is dawning, and that there is clearly, always hope.

Remember that young people want to contribute; they mourn too. Help them find their feelings by including them in the funeral planning and singing, thereby giving them their voice. (Good job, Becky Osmond.)

A Mentor’s Farewell to Marilyn

Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Monroe’s crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Our study of the eulogy brings us to this short piece of perfection delivered by Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg at actress Marilyn Monroe’s funeral in 1962. We are lucky to be able to hear a full recording here.

Strasberg barely got through his own closing paragraphs, which makes them all the more moving. Here’s what he said:
…I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage. Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sympathy and understanding for a sensitive artist and a woman who brought joy and pleasure to the world.

I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality – I will say au revoire. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
was played as well as a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (scroll to minute seven of this link to hear it). Tchaikovsky’s melodic lament (said to be be a cry of love for his nephew back in 1893) seems an appropriate farewell to a screen goddess, and had been repositioned as a doo-wop tune in 1960 by Little Anthony and the Imperials, placing it in the social atmosphere at the time of Monroe’s death. She was viewable in an open heavy bronze casket, wearing this green Pucci dress, hands grasping pink tea roses from Joe Dimaggio who planned the entire service and didn’t allow any Hollywood stars or hangers-on to attend.

Lutheran Pastor Recalls Productive Life Stolen by Mental Illness

Ned Vizzini

Ned Vizzini


A Funeral Mass and Service of Holy Communion was held in Brooklyn’s St. John-St. Matthew-Emanuel Lutheran Church two days before Christmas for the brilliant, NYC-born writer Ned Vizzini, who tragically leapt to his death last Thursday at age 32. Foremost on the mind of every speaker at the gorgeous tribute attended by perhaps four hundred people was the welfare of Vizzini’s devoted teenaged readers, many of whom, like Vizzini himself, have struggled or been hospitalized with depression and mental illness. Reverend David Parsons was quick to clarify: “Ned didn’t commit suicide. Mental illness took his life from him.”

Vizzini’s sister emphasized that it was important to Ned that his fans never lose hope. Ned was able to turn “demons into muses,” she said, when he wrote the critically-acclaimed books “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and “Be More Chill.” She praised him for his humor and his “emotional honesty.” Vizzini’s brother told charming, funny stories of childhood, described how Vizzini had been loving his Los Angeles screenwriting job, and expressed gratitude for his sibling’s most important legacies–his ability to write about depression with grace and humor, and a toddler son, who didn’t yet know what death was (which is as it should be, he said). Vizzini’s god-mother also spoke, saying “Life is way bigger than any story we can tell about it.” Most moving perhaps was the reading of the following passage (Matthew 6:25-29), which Vizzini once stated was of comfort to him in hard times.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Also read: This passage from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Psalm 77 and Romans 8:31-35, 37-39.
Hymns selected: Shall We Gather at the River? and Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.

Good Funeral Music: “Pie Jesus”

The “Pie Jesus” section of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem is gorgeously sorrowful and a lovely selection for large church funerals. Requirements: one church organist with one heck of a soprano or a nice church sound system upon which to play a fine recording like this one.


Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.
Dona eis requiem.
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Translation:
Merciful Lord Jesu,
Give them rest.
Give them rest.
Merciful Lord Jesu,
Give them everlasting rest.

Good Funeral Music: “What’ll I Do?”

The funeral for highly-prized, much-beloved journalist Peter Kaplan was held Tuesday in Larchmont, New York. “For a master of words, well crafted and conceived, for the artful literary visionary, the ultimate life editor, what else do we owe but words?” said presiding Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman. Crisp, artful eulogies were delivered, then Kaplan’s daughter Caroline sang Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” which she and her dad had previously agreed was the “best song ever.” Here’s Julie London’s rendition of “What’ll I Do?” (sans video). Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole also recorded it. Harry Nilsson, and Rufus Wainwright did well by it too.

Kaplan's favorite park, where mourners walked  after the service.

Kaplan’s favorite park, where mourners walked after the memorable service.


What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?

What’ll I do?
When I am wond’ring who
Is kissing you
What’ll I do?

What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?

When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That won’t come true
What’ll I do?

Sacred Music Composer John Tavener Is Dead

The greatest contemporary composer of sacred music Sir John Tavener died in Southern England yesterday, November 12th. He was best known in the US for writing “Song for Athene,” which was played as a recessional at Lady Diana’s 1997 funeral (see video above). Tavener had amicable relationships with each one of the Beatles and recorded for Apple Records. “The Protecting Veil” for cello and orchestra ranks among his most sorrowful but hope-filled pieces, and is music you might recommend to someone in a state of grief. A student of sacred scales, world religious chants, choral and organ music, Tavener spent many years in delicate health, which he said assisted his creative processs. “I live with the thought of death very much in front of me, and this may well have a bearing on the way I think generally.” Here’s another nice quote from today’s NYTimes obit: “I used to fret over manuscripts and think, ‘What am I going to do?’ Now it’s a question of going very quiet, emptying my mind of preconceived ideas and seeing what happens.” Here’s a lovely, short documentary on this most visionary composer and artist.

Bagpipes, Brahms, and a Single Poem Complete Heaney Funeral

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The funeral for Nobel poet laureate Seamus Heaney was held Tuesday at Dublin’s Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. Wildly affectionate eulogies were delivered (one referring to Heaney’s fondness for stating “Blessed are the pacemakers” after he received the device). Heaney’s friend and recording collaborator Liam O’Flynn then played Port na bPucai on the bagpipes. The only poem read at the service, written by the deceased, was The Given Note. The gathering concluded with Johannes Braham’s famous lullaby on cello as Heaney’s two sons and others shouldered the wood and brass casket. Here’s the whole report from Associated Press; thanks to Koshin Paley Ellison for alerting me to it. Heaney’s last words on his deathbed, written to his wife in Latin were “Noli timere” or “Do not be afraid.”

Good Funeral Music: “Bring Him Home”

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

Tenor Jesse Blumberg sang “Bring Him Home” at actor James Gandolfini’s funeral mass in Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s an especially apt musical choice since the beloved actor’s repatriation to the states from Italy last week was expedited thanks to phone calls from Bill and Hillary Clinton. Americans just wanted their big guy back.

Here is Alfie Boe’s sweet rendition of “Bring Him Home.”
And here’s the same song on piano and cello alone, once again revealing that old standbys are great without the words a lot of the time.

Peace be with you Mr. Gandolfini, a most talented, intuitive and generous man. Here’s HBO’s video tribute to him.

Good Funeral Music: “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” would work beautifully within the middle third of a funeral or memorial service, especially when the deceased was a child of the Sixties. Lots of artists have recorded it with great success–including the song’s author Sandy Denny herself. Nina Simone’s version (above) beats out Judy Collins’ in my humble opinion. Click here to hear male vocalist Jim Carroll give the song a different slant.

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

–by Sandy Denny

Scenes from an Opry Homegoing

Here’s singer Travis Tritt’s poised retelling of a conversation he had with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson on the day Tammy Wynette died, which he shared at last week’s Grand Ole Opry funeral for country legend George Jones (with casket set right in front of the stage). Well-paced delivery, sweet message. Have a listen. And yes, that’s Laura Bush seated next to Jones’ beloved wife Nancy who, like Mrs. Bush, got her George off the bottle.

Joy in the Mourning

You’ve heard about the marching Dixieland Jazz funeral that starts with a walking, mournful dirge down New Orleans’ streets and concludes with a jubilant interpretation of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” This funeral for New Orleans tuba player Kerwin James in 2007 has an elevated casket swing and dance sequence that would give any New York funeral director I know a massive heart attack. Everyone up here thinks “liability.” You’ll be touched by it though. Here also, for your betterment and listening pleasure, is a full, fabulous CD of funeral Dixieland jazz.

Today “Taps” is Mostly Lip-Synced

images-7Here’s a wonderful history of the playing of “Taps,” tracing its roots way back to before 1862 when it became the official final bugle call of every active-duty soldier’s evening. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh. At most American military cemeteries today, where scores of vets might be buried daily, “Taps” is–believe it or not–automated. Yes, it is faked by a uniformed player holding the bugle to his lips (something akin to Beyonce’s excellent lip-syncing at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.). This isn’t as awful or as disappointing as it would seem. The sound quality is decent, and most of the mourners are staring at the flag-drapped casket anyway as they ponder this awe-inspiring soldier’s lullaby, now recognized as every American soldier’s ballad all around the world.

One tip: Ask all elderly vets in your family where their military discharge papers are because you don’t want to be searching through file cabinets in the hours after their deaths, or having phone conversations with military cemetery personnel that sound like this: “I don’t know his entry date. I’ve looked everywhere. He served in Korea…” Even if you consider yourself a non-militaristic sort of person, do not deprive yourself and your family of the beauty and the substantial savings of military burial. Here’s the official explanation of which vets are eligible. Those who have served since 1980, must have stayed in for at least 24 continuous months.

The Passion of a Musical Farewell

Be kind to musicians. Or just be one. Because musicians can alter their surroundings, and turn pain into inspiration. They also tend to have the most inspired funerals. When Irish music pianist and retired IBM executive Felix Dolan, the father of my friend Phelim, died April 9, 2013, in Scarsdale, NY, at the age of 76, his friends in the Irish music world lamented his passing, and articulated his contributions–online at first, and then at the funeral, two days later, as you’ll see here. As more musicians strode to the front of the sanctuary, tugged off their coats, and sat down to play, the monsignor whispered to the altar boys, “This is one funeral you’ll never forget.”