Over the years, friends have asked me to play for their weddings, birthday celebrations, at Christmas parties and New Year’s. A few weeks ago, one of my dearest friends made a request that I didn’t want to hear.
“Would you play at my funeral?” she asked. “Because there will be a funeral.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, yet cheerful, as if she found the prospect of dying mildly absurd. She added, sounding almost bemused, “My daughter insists there be a service, to honor her mother.”
Up until that point, we had all been denying that a funeral was anywhere in the works. But eventually Stage 4 breast cancer wears one down. Even though I wasn’t ready to accept her acceptance of the inevitable, I said, “Of course I’ll play, you don’t even need to ask.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said, obviously relieved. ”Because if you don’t, there’s just bound to be hymns and a Presbyterian choir group.”
Much as I wanted to disbelieve she was giving up the fight, I know now that with that request she was preparing me. Ginny passed away two weeks ago, on a glorious September morning, at home, with her children by her side.
Yes, she was a soprano in the church choir, and sang all the hymns, but she’d grown up in the Twin Cities, in the 40’s, listening to her accomplished amateur pianist mother practice for hours. Ginny was a painter and a poet. Hymns alone wouldn’t do.
In choosing what to play for her service tomorrow, I’ve decided on late Beethoven (the Opus 109 Sonata – which is a miracle of profundity and grace.) Two Etudes –the Aeolian Harp by Chopin and “Un sospiro” by Liszt, which Ginny would have likely heard her mother play. The brilliant, melodious runs that soar and cascade through both pieces make me think of what Ginny said was her great joy as a child, which was to strap on ice skates and fly across the frozen Minnesota lakes ”like the wind.”
Finally, before the organist begins his Prelude, I will play Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” It is not funereal. It is a romantic, wistful piece, which evokes all the colors and lyricism that Ginny loved to create in her own art. It is tender, too, like her unconditional love for so many people.
My father told me that his father was the lead funeral singer in their village, when the area around Seoul, Korea, was still a rural, agragrian place, long before the Korean War, when whole villages came out to mourn the passing of a member of the community. Tomorrow I will be carrying on the tradition of my grandfather. To comfort the grieving and light the memory of a loved one – I can think of no greater honor that music serves.
I’ll have the tissues ready, though Ginny would want us to hug, sing and laugh.