Liturgy Matters — Music in the funeral rites

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

Music in the funeral rites

Music is an important element in the funeral liturgies with the power to comfort and console, to strengthen faith in the resurrection and to unify those gathered together.

The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), the book containing the liturgies for funerals, instructs us that the words of the music “should express the paschal mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death, and triumph over death and should be related to the readings from Scripture.” The music is not meant to “memorialize the deceased but to praise the Lord whose Paschal Sacrifice has freed us from the bonds of death.”

Just as the music for all liturgies has to meet certain criteria, funeral liturgies have specific directives for the music within each rite.

Each selection is judged on the quality of the music, the appropriateness of the text and placement within the liturgy. In some parts of the liturgy there are specified texts required and in others there are descriptions of the suggested content.

The Book of Psalms is the great songbook for the liturgy since, within the 150 psalms, the gamut of human feelings is expressed — from sorrow to joy, from fear to trust.

Although the music selections for funeral liturgies must be liturgical music rather than secular music, the style of music or the instrumentation that may be used is not limited.

Music selections also must be judged from a pastoral perspective. Will these people be able to sing them and express their faith? Due to the importance of participation of the people, the OCF emphasizes “the music selected should be simple and easily sung.”

Who selects the music for the funeral liturgies?

The selection of music for the funeral liturgies is the responsibility of the director of music ministry in the parish. The music minister has the best knowledge of the funeral rites, what music is appropriate for each part of the liturgy, what options are available, and most importantly, what selections are well-known across the broad spectrum of parishes to ensure the participation of the assembly.

Although members of the family are encouraged to have input into these decisions, most families have little experience in making these types of decisions and may want to rely on favorite songs, which may or may not be good choices for these rites.

Some parishes have persons assigned to visit the loved ones during this very emotional time after a death to assist them in whatever suggestions they wish to make.

Music for the funeral vigil

The Catholic funeral rites assume that there will at least be liturgical music in the vigil service and within the funeral Mass. An opening song and a responsorial psalm within the Liturgy of the Word are the musical elements of the funeral vigil liturgy. A closing song is optional. Since the vigil is usually held in a funeral home, the service of parish musicians is needed to provide this brief music ministry.

For the funeral Mass, the services of a parish cantor, and, if possible, a parish choir provide support for the assembly’s singing. In addition to the usual sung parts of the Mass, in the funeral Mass there is a processional song to accompany the ministers, deceased and family into the church after the reception of the body at the doors and once again at the end of the service to the place of burial. After the distribution of holy Communion, the rite of commendation takes place. The song of farewell is the high point of this rite and the text of this song “should affirm hope and trust in the paschal mystery, according to the OCF.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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