Sep 15, 2006

Music for Catholic Funerals — or, But Uncle Horace Loved that Song!

Online Edition – September 2006

Vol. XII, No. 6

Music for Catholic Funerals — or, But Uncle Horace Loved that Song!

by Lucy E. Carroll

There was a time when Catholics were buried at a Requiem Mass. The priest wore black vestments, signifying mourning. Traditional Latin chants were solemn and magnificent, the Introit, Requiem aeternam, asking for eternal rest; the Sequence, Dies Irae, where one trembles at the thought of the Last Judgment; and the celestial In Paradisum, where martyrs greet the deceased and a choir of angels receives him. Many classical composers over the centuries have set those texts for the concert stage, so impressive are they.

After the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis at Catholic funerals shifted from sorrow of death to the joy of heaven. In the Mass of Christian Burial, vestments are usually white, symbolizing the Resurrection (though violet and black are approved colors). The Dies Irae disappeared. Today, instead of choirs of angels transporting someone into heaven, we’re more likely to hear of their being scooped up on bird wings.

What music is appropriate for a Catholic funeral today? First of all, it normally takes place within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, the basic rules for Mass apply. Is the text sacred? Is the music sacred in nature?

In some places, it has become popular to play a recording of the deceased’s favorite pop song. But at a Catholic Mass, recorded music is never to be used, and popular secular songs are forbidden at Mass. Period.

Uncle Horace’s favorite song, then, unless it is an appropriate Catholic hymn, is best saved for the funeral parlor, wake, or family gathering. “Danny Boy”, for example, is totally inappropriate within the Mass, no matter how Irish Uncle Horace was. Putting religious words to that tune does not make it a sacred song. It is still “Danny Boy”. Whitewashing the pump does not purify the water! Save it for the family gathering after — along with the eulogies, which should not be part of the Mass. [The beautiful Hymn of Saint Patrick, “I bind unto myself today” (Adoremus Hymnal 463) would be an excellent choice — even for the non-Irish. — Ed.]

A priest once told me that he had officiated at what he called “the worst funeral ever in our archdiocese”. A young man in his thirties, very active in sports, had died. The young man’s brother wished to say a few words at the funeral. The local bishop permitted this, as long as the talk was “spiritual”.

The brother walked into the sanctuary in shorts, sneakers, and spoke of sports and such. Near the end, someone from the congregation handed something to the speaker. He held the object aloft, saying: “So, brother, here’s a toast: to you!” Pfsst! He popped open the beer can and began to drink! Immediately, from the congregation, pfsst, pfsst, pfsst, pfsst followed — people had brought their own beer cans to Mass!

The illustrates the problem — that many people have pretty much forgotten the meaning of the word “appropriate”. The brother’s toast was not appropriate in the sanctuary at Mass, even if it was intended to honor the deceased. This applies just as much to music. It must be appropriate.

What hymns are appropriate for a funeral Mass? Most anything that is appropriate for Mass. The text may recall God’s love for us, or it may paraphrase that most comforting of Psalms, 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd”. “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” is thus a very suitable hymn. (Two common musical settings are Columba, a traditional Gaelic melody – Adoremus Hymnal 580, and Dominus regit by Henry Dykes.) Hymns from the Easter season speaking of the Lord’s resurrection may also be suitable.

The Responsorial Psalm must be a Psalm, and not a wild paraphrase or a song. Stick to the Lectionary, folks! [Ten choices of Psalms for funeral Masses are given in the Lectionary. — Ed.]

At Communion, any Blessed Sacrament hymn with a theologically correct text could be used. Most lovely, perhaps, would be “Soul of My Savior”. Verse three pleads:

Guard and defend me from the foe malign.
In life’s last moments make me only thine.
Call me and bid me come to thee on high
Where I may praise thee with thy saints for aye. [ever]

Text attributed to Pope John XXII
(Tune: Anima Christi by Lorenzo Dobici.
Adoremus Hymnal 522)

Music from the traditional Requiem Mass may also be used. The chant settings of the Dies Irae, Requiem Aeternam and In Paradisum are in the Adoremus Hymnal 577, 574, and 572 respectively.

[The Dies Irae, no longer the required Sequence hymn before the Gospel at a Requiem Mass, might now be chanted before Mass begins. — Ed.]

There is perhaps no more lovely “sending off” than the In Paradisum. The setting in the Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem always leaves me with moist eyes. The Gregorian Chant melody is not difficult. I am on a mission to restore this lovely text to Catholic funerals!

In Paradisum deducant angeli
In tuo adventu, suscipiat te martyres
Et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat
Et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere
Aeternam habeas requiem.

My own translation:

May the angels lead you into Paradise
And when you come may the martyrs receive you
And lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May a choir of angels receive you,
And with Lazarus, once a pauper,
May you have eternal rest.

(We have a simplified chant version at the monastery. If you’d like a copy, send a SASE with your request to Lucy Carroll, 712 High Ave., Hatboro, PA, 19040).

There is also a nice English paraphrase of In Paradisum with text by Father James Quinn, to a tune from the Geneva Psalter (Adoremus Hymnal 573).

A very appropriate Offertory hymn, I suggest, is “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”, text by Father Frederick Faber, to the Dutch tune In Babilone (Adoremus Hymnal 613). Most of us will need God’s mercy as we approach our judgment! Other suitable hymns may be found in the section “Last Things” in the Adoremus Hymnal.

Another good choice would be “All You Who Seek a Comfort Sure”, text based on Qui cumque certure quaeritis, translated by Father Edward Caswall, to the tune Saint Bernard, from Tochter Sion, Cologne (Adoremus Hymnal 772), or “Lord Jesus Think on Me”, text by Synesius of Cyrene (4th century), translated by Allen Chatfield, to the tune Southwell (Adoremus Hymnal 364). Here is verse 5:

Lord Jesus, think on me
That when the flood is past
I may the eternal brightness see
And share thy joy at last.

That is, after all, what we all hope: that we may share the eternal joy of heaven, at last, when this life is over!

Think about planning the music for your own funeral Mass. You could leave instructions with your will. Most musicians I know, myself included, do this — list the music, attach copies, and even list the musicians you would like to participate. Of course, if you request something inappropriate, your pastor couldn’t honor that request!

Requiescat in pace!


Lucy Carroll, music director at the Carmelite Monastery, Philadelphia, is a frequent contributor to AB, and creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoon featured in these pages.



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA