But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. —1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV
I am not going to die; I’m going home like a shooting star. —Sojourner Truth
After six months of visiting my grandmother in a nursing home every other day, and my mom visiting on the other days; after six months of delivering chocolate milkshakes to fill out Nina’s anorexic frame; after six months of brushing her dark curly hair before pushing her wheelchair out into the sunshine; after six months of reading books aloud as she rested her eyes in bed, we all laughed during a speech my mom had written to cultivate humor as we remembered Theresa Lee Hughes Carter, who did not want the morose of spirit filling the funeral home pews. Nina wanted us to laugh, remember, and listen.
Besides the speech, my mom played a recording of my namesake, Jenni Till, singing “No More Night,” made popular by David Phelps, words and music by Walt Harrah.
See all around, now the nations bow down to sing
The only sound is the praises to Christ, our King
Slowly the names from the book are read
I know the King, so there’s no need to dread
No more night, no more pain
No more tears, never crying again
And praises to the great “I AM”
We will live in the light of the risen Lamb
After watching Nina wrestle with death in her nursing home bed as fluid filled her lungs, her eyes pleading with me, my parents, and brother, I’m not ready to leave you; after she took her last terrestrial breath and the Lord’s peace and our tears filled the small room, the gifts of mirth and music are a blessed recollection.
* * *
I’ve paid attention to the art of funerals.
* * *
A friend died way too young of cancer. My legs felt weak and fluid as I passed by her casket covered with a white liturgical cloth laden with gold crosses. I was overcome with grief, and her death was my first real reckoning with my own death since we were very close in age. My friend left behind a husband and a beautiful little boy. I was a newlywed at the time — would I leave Johnny behind on his own? Would I be blessed with children before the Lord took me home? I still don’t know the answer to these questions, but nowadays I smile and choke on joyful tears when we sing the hymn from her funeral at my church, “I Am the Bread of Life” by Suzanne Toolan. My friend’s suffering is over, once and for all — the Lord raised her up.
I am the Resurrection,
I am the Life,
He who believes in Me
Even if he die,
He shall live forever.
And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up,
And I will raise him up on the last day.
* * *
I saved the bulletins from my Papaw’s funeral in 2006, and Aunt Pat’s funeral in 2011. Each bulletin reads like a short memoir.
The liturgy of Papaw’s life begins with “Blessed Assurance,” followed by a hymn he wrote and performed often — “All Because of Calvary.” If I shut my eyes I can vividly hear his comforting tenor and vintage strains from his Omnichord:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,”
Amazing blessings that abound,
All because of Jesus’ sacrifice for me;
I have a song, my sins are gone, I’ll praise His name eternally;
All because of what He did on Calvary.
Blessed Jesus, Savior mine,
Son of man and Son Divine,
Sacrifice He made for me on Calvary;
My heart is filled, my soul is thrilled for now I have the victory,
All because of Jesus’ death on Calvary.
Papaw’s liturgy continues with passages from John and Romans; “Great is Thy Faithfulness;” and “Victory in Jesus.” These hymns and Scriptures remind me why Papaw, a lifelong Baptist minister of music, is one of my heroes, revealing the roots of his courage. He cared for a wife with Parkinson’s disease and three children. He outlived his second wife, and married his third wife, who survived him. He never lost sight from where to glean strength when loss drained him dry.
The liturgy of Aunt Pat’s life is comprised of a quote about community by Dorothy Day; “A Mighty Fortress is Our God;” Psalm 84; the German folk song “How Tedious and Tasteless” (Aunt Pat loved it, but her family found it perfectly named); passages from Matthew and 2 Corinthians; “The Lord’s Prayer;” and “The Love of God” by Frederick M. Lehman, which Pat and Papaw often sang together in church and at family reunions — she harmonized perfectly with her honey alto voice.
The epilogue of Pat’s story is her obituary, and this is my favorite line:
She loved music, ranging from choral anthems to Willie Nelson and Elvis. She loved her niece and nephew like they were her own.
* * *
Two years after Nina died, I meandered the aisles of my favorite record store and mentally ran through my meager budget. Confident that I had enough money for groceries and electricity, I snagged Julie Miller’s Broken Things CD. I loved each song, but “All My Tears” resonated within me.
There in my 3-room efficiency apartment, 24 years old and in full health, I had a sudden thought: This is my funeral song. The thought surprised me, but it did not frighten me.
I didn’t ponder my death very much at the time, and for all that I worried about, the fashion of my demise did not top the list. I suppose it was just one of those divine moments when God speaks and we know it. I knew that one day when my body rested in a simple, no-frills casket, this song would comfort my family and friends with hope and joy, even in death. I admire the straightforwardness of the lyrics regarding the Gospel, and I love the alt-country twang of Buddy Miller’s guitar and Julie Miller’s unique, delicate voice. And if all of my funeral wishes come true, a band of our musician friends will play this song much like the recording, which will be a rousing, encouraging gift — a mini-concert — for loved ones’ recollections to come.
* * *
I’m 39 years old now, and I’ve added to my funeral playlist. It now reads:
“All My Tears” by Julie Miller.
“Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness” by Johann Franck.
“Be Still, My Soul” by Katharina A. von Schlegel.
“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” by Henry Williams Baker.
The songs I’ve added have sustained me through sickness and hardships and times of restlessness, times when I questioned the Lord in storms of emotion. I’d like my family and friends to know where my soul finally settled — in grace and gladness, in stillness and peace, for “thy God doth undertake / To guide the future, as He has the past. / Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake; / All now mysterious shall be bright at last. / Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know / His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.”
I’m not sure how my life will unfold in the years to come, which elations and sufferings might be waiting for me, inspiring more additions to my playlist. Sometimes we sing a new hymn in church and I think, Perhaps this should be a funeral song, too. And so my husband and I discuss such strange things as our funerals because music is especially important to us. We want the songs to be parting gifts, guiding our loved ones’ grief to the only balm that will heal.
I have a hunch that my liturgy will include words from Psalms, chapters from Isaiah, and excerpts from Paul’s letters. I envision my funeral bulletin decorated with a piece of artwork by my friend Kierstin Casella. It includes a bird, a tree branch, foliage, wheat, rye, wine, and the lyrics to “Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness”:
Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
come into the daylight’s splendor,
there with joy thy praises render
unto Him whose grace unbounded
hath this wondrous banquet founded;
high o’er all the heavens He reigneth,
yet to dwell with thee He deigneth.
My hope and expectation is for my funeral playlist to be a blessing like a benediction to the liturgy of my life.