Threnody: a progress report

Charles Cowling

 

Posted by Tim Clark

 

Threnody is a group of people mostly drawn from the ranks of Bangor Community Choir. We are ready to sing at funerals in places that don’t normally have choral singing, particularly at crematoria. Charles has already been kind enough to feature us here, and I felt it might be time for an update. 

We have settled into a pattern of monthly practices, in a local village hall, with add-ons when we feel like it in a friendly front room, and last-minute work-ups when we need to prepare for a funeral. We have sung at seven funerals so far: two in one crem, two at another, one at a village hall prior to a woodland burial, and one – well, that was Threnody’s first tour abroad. More on that below. 

That’s about one in five of the funerals I’ve helped with (I’m a celebrant) since we got going. When I’m meeting a family, it’s sometimes easy to tell whether or not Threnody might be wanted. It’s often been observed that people want something familiar at such a time, so sometimes the response is “oh no, that sounds a bit unusual, he wouldn’t have wanted that.” I don’t want to coax them, but I don’t want them to miss the opportunity to have something that might make a lot of difference to the ceremony. Tricky balance. 

Sometimes we are asked to help because the family want a hymn or two, and they are worried that it will sound thin with a small congregation; then they may be happy to hear that we can also sing, unaccompanied by organ and congregation, at particular moments. Entry, committal, departure are obvious points. 

One lady, who was quite unsure about the idea to start with, was much moved by “Ar Hyd y Nos” at entry, and “Dona Nobis Pacem” at committal. We also joined the congregation to sing in unison along with the organ for a couple of hymns we didn’t have ready in parts. But I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant to say that we are not there just to swell the numbers along with the organ. The effect of a capella singing seems to be quite different – lighter, more immediate, I think more engaging. 

Sometimes, of course, a family is delighted and surprised that I can offer four-part, unaccompanied singing. We have a repertoire of about 20 songs and hymns. It’s not possible, alas, for us to learn a new song at three days’ notice, but the choice is reasonably wide and includes some well-known songs. 

Favourites include “Ar Hyd y Nos/All Through the Night,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Calon Lan,” “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer,” “Amazing Grace,” as well as less obvious but effective choices such as “Eriskay Love Lament,” “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a round, “Sith Shaimh Leat” which is Gaelic for something close to “rest in peace.” All of these last three have worked very well in crematoria. We’re pleased with the repertoire we’ve worked up, and we’ll probably only add to it slowly, to keep us fresh. 

Interestingly, two families have said “we want hymns but we don’t want an organ.” So we sing, in harmony, the first phrase of the hymn just as an organist would play it, slowing down at the end, back to the start and then the congregation comes in. Provided I explain beforehand that’s what we’ll be doing, it works well. Hearing a Welsh/English congregation of fifty roaring through “Guide Me” with us is gooseflesh time! 

The members of Threnody love singing and are very committed to the work; for those who have perhaps been to very few funerals before, it can be quite a tough call. At a village hall, some of the sopranos were singing just a few feet from people in tears, and of course the songs themselves open up the emotions – that’s their job. 

We’ve overcome one crisis, when Colin and Anne Douglas left us to move to Scotland. They are both trained musicians, both sing like angels, and Colin did most of our arrangements. He also conducted us in our first five funerals. Franki has taken over the job twice now, very effectively, and we have at least three other members practising the role. We miss Colin and Anne very much – but you never know what talents a group of people have until you ask, do you? 

Administering Threnody can be tricky. Some of us work part-time or flexibly, some are retired, and all have to be contacted quickly. I don’t want to suggest Threnody to a family and then find out we haven’t got enough members available. But when we’re at work, enriching a crematorium funeral, it’s worth every anxious text and email. 

It must be said that the village hall funeral was the choir’s favourite – intimate, informal, much less time pressure on the whole thing.

And the foreign tour? 

An anxious lady phoned me from Shrewsbury. She knew it was a long shot but she wanted choral singing in Welsh at the funeral, and no-one was available locally. She said she would book transport for us and contribute to our favourite charity. I was very disappointed because I wasn’t available, and any case a local celebrant had been booked. I asked the choir how they felt. They were a bit startled, but they rose to the occasion, and they swept down from Bangor to Shrewsbury in a bus, sang for the lady, and when they got back in the bus, the good lady had put a hamper of sandwiches in there for them. I’m told they sung all the way home. The good lady was delighted with them.

I call that Bangor 1, Shrewsbury 0… 

9 thoughts on “Threnody: a progress report

  1. Charles Cowling
    tim clark

    QG, should have added – I’d guess a hospice choir would be an excellent place to start.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    tim clark

    Well, isn’t this encouraging? Good point about the mighty Gareth, QG, he shows that “ordinary people” can sing well – and I’ll look into a video clip possibilities. And solo flute in a slightly echoey crem? Wonderful.

    I’m very grumpy, Evelyn, about these choirs that offer to sing at funerals and charge a lot – I’m told of one in Devon that charges £300! Well, they’re obviously in it for the money. You could talk to the leaders of the rock choirs – after all, because they favour a rock repertoire doesn’t mean they couldn’t learn and respond to a different sort of music as individuals. But you’d need someone to lead them, sort out arrangements etc. There must be a natural voice-type choir somewhere within reach.

    I think the thing about charging a lot may be that Threnody are local people singing for local people – not that they necessarily know the family etc. but they see themselves in a local context. (Except for Shrewsbury, of course!) Maybe the high-priced hotshots just cruise a large area offering their expensive services in a rather more anonymous way? They may be very good singers – but that’s not the way this thing will grow.

    I’ve found that these people love to sing, and they get fulfilment from knowing that it helps. Such people are hardly unique to this area. We need to get this thing away from the people who want to earn serious money from it, and into the hands of the community. Er – bit like other aspects of caring for the dead and their families?


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Quokkagirl

    One of the best funerals I ever led was where there was a choir. Spine tinglingly beautiful – it adds so much to the atmosphere. A solo flautist was a close second playing Blow the Wind Southerly at the funeral of a disabled child who had loved her music therapy sessions. Gulp.

    Let’s see a clip of Threnody please, Tim. In the meantime I will put the feelers out locally to choirs – I know there is a Hospice choir locally who sing beautifully. Maybe…………..and it would catch on so well – after all, choirs are the new black since Gareth Malone.


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Evelyn

    Sooo envious, a capella is so spinetinglingly pure…. the nearest we can get is to have Fron on Wesley…there are live singing groups but they are expensive. There’s a few of those Rock Choirs round by ‘ere, do you think they’d be worth a call? Or does it need to be a ‘proper’ choir choir?


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Tim Clark

    Thank you Poppy – you have an open invitation!

    I think the idea could spread, but it takes a deal of time, and as I’ve indicated, could perhaps best be seeded from existing natural voice community choirs. I think it would be a huge business trying to develop such a thing from no existing base.


    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Poppy Mardall

    This sounds so amazing Tim! Can’t wait for this to catch on and spread across the UK. There couldn’t be a more valuable and fulfilling thing to do. Hope to see you all in action one day.


    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    tim clark

    Thanks very much for your encouragement, Claire and James. I’m sure we’ll give some thought to the filming idea. As for choirs being expensive – well, sorry to sound priggish, but – shame on them! Threnodists want to sing, want to find contexts where their singing will help with people’s grief. They charge travel expenses, at most. Some of them rearrange their work schedules to fit in practices and funerals. I’m ludicrously proud of what they’ve accomplished.

    If you had the time, Claire, you could hunt down your nearest community choir leader and ask what sort of things they usually sing, and whether any of them might want to team up and sing at funerals? Especially the older choir members (i.e. maybe they’ve been bereaved) might grab the idea. We were lucky with Pauline Down and Bangor Community Choir, but I’m sure there must be similar elsewhere, certainly in creatively groovy Devon?


    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    james

    Me too, Tim. It sounds delicious.
    Could you arrange to film your next rehearsal and post it here so we can get a taste of the Threnody vibe?


    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    claire callender

    Oh Tim, how I wish you and Threnody were further south. It is my belief that there is nothing more moving or powerful than the human voice at a funeral.
    But the choirs around here are very expensive (unless of course the person that died was a member)

    keep on keeping on


    Charles Cowling