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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

November 17, 2009

‘Don’t play anything religious!’

evelyn @ 2:10 pm

A church organist is unlikely to hear that phrase, but in my job down at the funeral parlour, I’m told this when I’m asked to play at a Humanist funeral, as I did this morning.

This experience is quite different from playing for people who just don’t go to church.  The non-churchgoers feel they need a minister on such an occasion, and find Classic FM Christian favourites like Jesu joy of man’s desiring and Sheep may safely graze very comforting.

A Humanist funeral, however, is strictly secular, and Christian favourites are out.  Today, because there were (naturally) no hymns, I was asked to play non-religious music before and after, and also during a brief period of reflection in the middle.

For an organist, this can be quite tricky to plan.  As well as throwing out Jesu joy and Sheep, you have to be careful about music which was originally secular, but has become inextricably linked in people’s minds with church services.  Handel’s Largo, for example, started off as an ode to a tree, but who remembers that?  Dvorak’s New World Largo and Holst’s Jupiter have gone so far as to have hymn words written to them.  Even Nimrod conjures up Remembrance Day associations, and is therefore a bit suspect.

So last night I went through my dog-eared collection and made a list of ‘safe’ ones, which, if you’re interested, included To a Wild Rose, Schubert’s Serenade and Chopin’s Tristesse (remember I’m playing an electronic piano here).  Then I topped the lot off with a few Scottish melodies – Ca’ the yowes, the Eriskay love lilt, and suchlike – and sent them on their way with The Dark Island.   They seemed happy enough with that.  Or as happy as one can be at a funeral.

In another post, it might be worth exploring the reverse side of the coin – when is secular music OK in church services?


  1. Hi Evelyn,

    Not being an organist (but a friend of organists) I don’t really feel qualified to comment (but I will anyway!) Well done with the blog – I’m sure it could develop into a good forum for you organ buffs to exchange ideas. Your remark about the happy funeral-goers reminded me of the jolliest funeral I ever attended. The deceased had been a keen country dancer, & we all went skipping out of the crematorium to the strains of “Caddam Wood”.

    Comment by Frances — November 19, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  2. Now that IS a new one – an all-singing, all-dancing funeral! Thanks for your comment, Frances. We’ll see how things develop.

    Comment by Evelyn — November 21, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

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