Songs of Life at More Churches, Full Choirs Lead Funeral Hymns

By Patricia Rice Post-Dispatch Religion | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Songs of Life at More Churches, Full Choirs Lead Funeral Hymns


Patricia Rice Post-Dispatch Religion, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Choir voices soared as they sang the hymn "Precious Lord." Even now, two weeks after her aunt's funeral, Mary Gallagher feels uplifted by the words of the spiritual. Lyrics of each hymn sung that day assured her of her aunt's strong belief in resurrection.

"The music was a blessing," said Gallagher, a retired department store clerk. "It really helped me."

The funeral for her aunt, Stella Morris, was at Union Memorial United Methodist Church in the city's Visitation Park neighborhood. The church's c hoir volunteers to sing at every funeral there.

Too often, Gallagher has attended funerals at other churches with only a few mourners and no choir. In these nearly empty churches, the organist has played and the assembly gave out a few peeps passing for hymns. At her aunt's funeral, mourners added their voices to the 30-member choir's robust affirmation of their beliefs.

Black churches have a long tradition of choirs singing at every funeral. Now other churches, particularly Catholic and Episcopal churches, have formed "resurrection" choirs to lead singing at funerals.

When J. Edward and Patricia Anderson's funeral is held at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic church in Webster Groves, the parish's 4-year-old volunteer resurrection choir will sing.

"I think it is a trend," said Monsignor Thomas J. Woracek, pastor of Mary Queen of Peace. The choir sang for the 37 funerals at the church last year.

Some churches, like Union Memorial, use regular choir members who can switch their lunch hours or are retired. Other congregations, like Mary Queen of Peace, use a core of regular choir members supplemented with seniors and young mothers. It's part of a national push by church music leaders in several denominations to have richer funeral liturgies that celebrate the resurrection.

These resurrection choirs are not paid. A few Protestant churches with paid professional Sunday choirs, like St. Peter Episcopal Church in Ladue, have long provided a choir, but their professionals are paid.

"Singing for funerals is a real service, a ministry," said Wiletta Atkinson, a Union Memorial choir member and city public school teacher who sings when school is out.

The main role of many resurrection choirs is to get the whole assembly to sing. At most funerals, mourners come from different faiths, congregations and denominations having varied hymnals and preferences in hymns. The key to widespread singing is to lead with a familiar hymn, said David Polk, editor of the St. Louis-based Chalice Press.

Most Americans know "Abide with Me," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the 11 other suggested funeral hymns in the new "Chalice Hymnal" used by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptists and United Church of Christ congregations here. …

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