Continuing my theme of people dying, this has been a busy week. I had two funerals to play the organ for and each had its own challenges. One of the problems came from the fact that there was a substitute priest for the first occasion, and a church I had never been in for the second.
There is another organist in our parish, John, and before he and his wife Betty went on holiday at the beginning of August, they asked if I would play for a funeral “next Monday”. Now you might wonder why I put that in quotation marks. I have lived in England for 50 years but that phrase or variations on it, has let me down on several occasions. In America next Monday, said on a Sunday, would mean a week from the following day while "this Monday" would be the next day. In England. So when I got myself all geared up for playing for the funeral at 1.30 on Monday the 12th, I was the only one there. I blamed Betty for telling me the wrong date, and I blamed the priest, who I had left a message on the phone and emailed asking for confirmation of the time, because he hadn't corrected my mistake on the email which mentioned the 12th. I should have blamed myself, because when I read back the notes I had made from his eventual reply, it clearly included the dates - the 21st and 22nd”.
Father Kevin had been in Newcastle substituting for Father Robert who had traded parishes with him, so that they could each say a change was as good as a break. So he hadn't had my emails. But when he returned, he called me and when we both apologised for our mistakes in communication, he asked me to alter the music selections for each of the services. This set up a new problem for the first funeral, as the new song the family wanted was not in my hymn book, and I can't play without sheet music. So on late Sunday night, I managed to find a version I could
download off the computer, and he made 20 copies of the words for five verses of Lord of the Dance.
Whoever had picked the music for that service wasn't a regular singer, or perhaps the only singer in the bunch, because all five songs were solos. Not that people wouldn't have known the melodies to some extent, but nobody was brave enough to raise their voice, save one very talented woman singer, bless her. I would have felt even worse if I had been playing a solo each time.
It was a largish gathering for the service, and the man in his coffin, who was past 90, was spoken to, directly by Father Kevin through out the service. “”Don't blame me, Rob,” he said, “if you don't like the readings and the songs. Your family chose them, not me.” He mentioned football quite a lot, as Rob was apparently a strong Man United fan, which meant that if Father John, our cancer filled usual
priest had been doing the service, he certainly would have made some sort of dig – him being a annual ticket holder for Man City. Father John managed to put some football related comment into all of his sermons over the fifteen or so years he was here, so I'm glad that football was at least mentioned for Rob's sake. He would have been expecting it.
Today was the bigger challenge. I was advised to go early and park my car so that I could get out at the end, as it is a very small car park, and no doubt many people would be blocked in. I got there 40 minutes early and there were already a dozen or so people milling about. This church is a similar size and age (1850 or so) to the one I normally attend – and the layout was similar except this one was clearly visible to the town, with a high pointed steeple. Ours was built during the time that Catholic churches were forbidden, so it is the back half of what looks like an ordinary old house – with nothing at all church like visible from the road.
Anyway, the first similarity I noticed was that one needs to go up a steep winding staircase to get to the organ loft. But ours is not enclosed, so you have light to guide you on your way. This one was cut into stone walls, and although a helpful parishioner found me a light switch, it only lit the room upstairs, and the first six or so steps had to be taken with great faith in pitch black, with no railings of any sort. The space was so narrow that if I had fallen, my own body would stop me from going too far. But if they closed the door when I was up there, and turned off the light, I had huge trepidations that it would not be a nice experience.
So having got up there, I found another light, so things looked a lot more promising. This organ is no doubt original to the founding of the church, or else they made a big effort to buy one that would fit that bill. I have played similar ones, with pull out round stops on each side of the keyboard, but what I couldn't find was a switch to turn on the power. Surely this wasn't a “pedal your power “version. But after I looked every conceivable place for a switch, I felt it was important to get help from below. So leaving all the lights on, I went back downstairs, where they had shut the door, but at least there was a latch on the inside which worked, I went to each and every person in the building, and nobody knew how to turn on the organ, including the Eucharistic minister and the priest. But as there was a perfectly good piano available, I made the decision that I would use that instead.
It is a grand piano – and I managed to figure out how to get the various covers off and pieces of wood up and across, but couldn't find out how to prop up the music. But Anunciata, the eucharistic assistant, helped me with that, so I was finally ready to play. I had gone back up the dark and dreary stairs to get my music and handbag and to push the stops back to where they belonged. I also noticed another problem with the organ. It faced away from the altar. I had played one like that before, but it had a mirror installed so the organist could see without turning around, what was going on during the service. They should have had me on their committee when they spent thousands of
pounds fixing up this organ for the church. I can't imagine that it is ever used.
The grand piano had had lots of use over the years, and as a result some of the keys would only play with huge pressure applied. I started out my usual quiet sad background songs before the service, and really had fun playing this beautiful instrument, and learned which notes needed a bit of
Before I started, a woman, who I found out was Sister Kathy, presumably a nun, but without any of the old fashioned garb, came up to me and said “Please don't start playing the songs until the choir is in place.” I agreed, and not knowing there was going to be a choir, it was just as well that somebody had told me that.
The procession with the coffin and the mourners proceeded, with the priest saying prayers during the progress. In the States, I would have played a hymn during this time, and everyone would have sung, but not here. Then the priest gave a little welcoming speech and said for the first hymn to start. He looked at me, and I didn't start. He gave me a hard stare, but I knew I had to wait for the choir. Soon the ten or so women with their conductor were in place, so I started the hymn, “Walk with my O My Lord,” and as I took a glance towards the choir, noticed there was no singing as such coming from them. They were all deaf – and using sign language to sing. Apparently, the man in the coffin, Jerry
and his wife , Vera, were both totally deaf, and had belonged to this choir, so it was a special extra for the event.
There was another priest who signed the Mass, and the people who had been chosen to read the epistle and gospel were also twinned with a signer. I had noticed the man siting next to my piano making all sort of signs before the service started and I had wondered if it was necessary to sign one's thoughts. But he was one of the signers for the readings, and he had just been practicing his part.
The oldest son and then one of the grandchildren gave the eulogies for Jerry. They were long but very interesting and full of good humour. Jerry had worked as window cleaner in Stockport – I suppose he was lucky to have a regular job with being totally deaf. But he apparently was also very clever with his hands and could make or fix just about anything. He and Vera had five children, and he sounded a wonderful dad – having the kids meet him at the door after his long hard days, and he would play hide and seek with him. “One of the advantages of having deaf parents,” the speaker said, “was that nobody ever told us to be quiet.”
Father Kevin started his little sermon by apoligising to Jerry in his coffin, because four years ago, Kevin had gone into the seminary (a few months after his wife had died) and had been been presented by Jerry and Vera with a DVD of how to sign the Mass, and he had to admit that he had never opened the outer casing. But he said that having known Jerry and his wife over the years, he had found out how much communication there was with deaf people without the use of words, or even signs. He used to get a smile and a thumbs up after each service.
The rest of the mass followed on the usual pattern until it came to the Offertory. Father Kevin had told me on Sunday of this last week, that he wanted “Gifts of Bread and Wine” for the communion hymn. I didn't question it although the words make it clearly much more suitable for an offertory hymn. But he announced that we would just have a quiet time during the offertory. Sister Cathy came up to me to find out what was wrong as her choir were ready to sing. “He wants to do it at
Communion,” I said. “But the words are printed under the Offertory on our programs,” she said. No wonder they were confused.
The last hymn was “The Spirit Lives to Set us Free” and I was pleased that I could play loud and strong on my grand piano, and everyone sang or signed with me. What a contrast to our last hymn yesterday.
Then as the coffin was processed to the graveyard outside, I played “May the Angels Come to Greet You and Lead You to Paradise.” It is such a lovely hymn, and I only discovered it when I was asked to play for a funeral in another parish, and was told it was a standard ending there. So hopefully I will have started a new tradition for this church.
But my car was blocked in, and they didn't pay me. But it was a good enough day to make me
want to share the experience – so that is what I'm doing.