All over the world, Orthodox Christians are gathering in dark churches to sing and read the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The hymns are especially moving, focusing on repentance and using the people of the Bible for examples, both good and bad. But when your husband is an Orthodox priest, the hymns have another layer of meaning. The eirmosi of this canon are what the clergy sing as they carry a priest around the church, in his open coffin, at the conclusion of the funeral service.
I appreciate that in the Orthodox Church, the services are already laid out for you. You don’t have to write your own wedding vows. You don’t have to dream up an appropriate celebration of life when someone dies. At the wedding, everyone prays for the establishment of the marriage and the Church lists good examples from the Bible. At a funeral, everyone prays for the departed, and we remember that we, too, will die, so we should be prepared, by growing closer to God and being kind to each other.
An Orthodox funeral is not short, but a priest’s funeral is like a layman’s funeral on steroids. There are five Gospel readings instead of one. The entire Kontakion for the departed is read, with all twenty-four verses, instead of the shorter form used at every lay funeral and memorial service. And at the end of the service the priest, vested and in his coffin, is hoisted by his fellow clergy and carried around the church that he served, not unlike the athlete in Housman’s poem:
And home we brought you shoulder-high.“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman
Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)
All of which brings me to the question: what will they sing at your funeral?
Or, rather, since this is a writing prompt, “What will they sing at your character’s funeral?”
Is there a song that epitomizes your life, or the life of your hero, or the life of your villain?
The conflict behind the scenes and even overtly at funerals that can be such heartache in the life of people can be gold in the life of a book. What is there that the deceased wants that someone else does not want?
When the Diocese of Providence told Roman Catholics that they could not play “Danny Boy” on bagpipes at funerals, one wag said, “I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral Mass, and if I don’t hear it, I’m going to get up and walk out!”
Hearing Songs Again
Because I am not Roman Catholic, I do not attend Mass on a regular basis. But there are hymns that are sung at many funerals, like “Be Not Afraid,” that I hear only at christenings, baptisms, and funerals. Hearing the hymn at the wedding of a friend’s grandchildren whom I last saw at her funeral, where this was sung, has two different effects. It makes me miss my friend more. And it sort of makes it feel like she has been included.
Funerals are great for writers.
The possibilities for fiction are endless. We see them in movies and television — the funeral designed by one set of friends or relatives and attended and critiqued, by others, in ‘The Kominsky Method;” the modern children at a traditional funeral who don’t know what to do in “Grand Torino;” Data’s choice of a New Orleans Jazz funeral for Geordi and Ro’s funeral on “Star Trek, The Next Generation” are all examples of how a funeral can force characters together to underscore their differences and further the plot.
For non-fiction, you can write about a funeral you were at, or a funeral you missed. You can write speculatively about the service you envisioned or in an expository manner about the one you actually did attend.
But music is something special. Just as the sports teams, television shows, and movies have theme songs, your funeral music, like your wedding music, is a reflection on your life, and when people hear it again, in another context, it can bring you to mind the way the eirmosi of the Great Canon remind me of standing with a tear-stained face with friends and family at the funerals of priests and bishops whom we love.
In “Hamilton,” the big music question is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
All of us die. Most funerals have music (and if they don’t, that’s worth writing about also.)
Where did you hear a song that you also heard (before or after) at a loved ones funeral?
What did you sing at your father’s funeral?
What song or hymn would you want people to sing for you?
Writing prompt: Remember a funeral you attended. Make a connection between the deceased and the music. Or write about the disconnect between the deceased and the service.
We had a parishioner who was a pioneer in nuclear physics. She and her husband were childless, and toward the end of her life, she lived with her nephews, who loved her very much. The nephews’ wives also loved her, but were constantly after her to try something different with her hair, with her make-up, and with her clothes. When this lady died, the nephews’ girlfriends made the arrangements, including choosing a new stylist and make-up artist for the funeral. This somber, scholarly woman who always wore her hair in a discreet gray bun lay in her coffin with bold make-up, blond hair, and a jewel toned blouse.
I could have sworn I saw her wink at me.
The Great Canon
Coming back to the Great Canon, I think I know some of the reasons why we sing what we do at the funeral of a priest. We pray for the dead always, but especially in the first forty days after their repose, when the soul is judged. And so we use the hymns with which we launch Great Lent, a journey of forty days, for launching the clergy we love on this journey. We hope that, like Great Lent, the priest’s forty days’ journey will end also with a glorious resurrection.
But also, the words of the canon profess deep faith, and hope, and love. As we stand behind the priest in church when these words are sung, so we stand behind him in procession, when they are sung again. It is goodbye. It is an honor guard. It is our battle hymn.
I will leave you with the first ode eiromos:
He is my Helper and Protector, and has become my salvation.(Exodus 15:2,1; Psalm 117:14
This is my God and I will glorify Him. My father’s God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has He been glorified.