The Christian Funeral Hymn

Church singing, Tacuinum Sanitatis Casanatensis (XIV century).

Church singing, Tacuinum Sanitatis Casanatensis (XIV century).

Although funeral hymns have been a necessity for religious funerals since the eighteenth century, in a sense there are no true funeral hymns. In other words, few if any classic hymns were written specifically for funerals. Instead, many hymns chosen for funerals are those that remind the family of the deceased, the deceased’s life or his or her beliefs.

Hymns have been described as sacred poetry set to music and they have been part of the Christian tradition and the Jewish from which it was derived, although not always written specifically for the masses. Psalms and specially-composed sacred songs were widespread in Christian worship by the fourth century and some suggest that passages in the New Testament are quotes from hymns already in use (see below).

However, political changes within religious bodies have steered the history of hymns. During the Medieval era, singing of hymns by anyone other than officials in the Catholic Church was considered an ‘error of Popery’ or carnal formality. Hymns at that time were written for aristocracy and performed in private chapels by professional musicians and were not to be shared with the unwashed masses.

Public church music at that time consisted of plainchant hymnody, or music that inspired discipline and little joy. However, with the Reformation in the sixteenth century, church music took on new meaning. The Book of Psalms was chosen and given rhyme and verse structures to make the verses easy to sing and to understand in an otherwise illiterate congregation.

Congregational music became inclusive after Benjamin Keach, minister of the Particular Baptists in Southwark, England, persuaded the majority of his congregation to sing a hymn one day at the end of Communion. He asked them to remember the Gospel account of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30), “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives…”

Twenty years later, in 1691, Keach published a paper declaring the necessity of public singing in churches. In 1697, he published a collection of thirty-seven hymns. But, the writer who began the new era of the Christian hymn was Isaac Watts (1674-1748), whose hymns are still sung by Protestant congregations today. Two of his most famous include “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the wondrous Cross.”

Although many great Christian songwriters have contributed to religious hymns over the centuries, none of these hymns were dedicated solely to funerals. With that said, the development of Gospel music as an aid to evangelism during the eighteenth century also proved a great aid to development of songs that provided solace to surviving families of the deceased. Gospel music, deeply influenced by English brothers John and Charles Wesley, was created to stir the emotions and feelings of the congregation in direct contrast to metrical psalms and well-controlled congregational hymns.

Today, in funeral arrangements, the deceased may have made specific wishes for music, or the surviving family may choose among a variety of options for the funeral service. Gospel, folk, traditional and even chants are used to characterize the life of the deceased for these occasions. In all cases, the suggestion of appropriate words within the hymn should be considered. As Music for Church Choirs states: “If the funeral is followed by a trip to the crematorium, for example, steer them [the surviving family members] away from the hymn Sing Hosanna. Why? Have a look at verse 4…”

“Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Keep me burning till the end of day.”

To avoid the issue of words within hymns, many families choose instrumentals instead. But, those families dedicated to the church often know well in advance the hymns that are close to the deceased’s heart, as hymns are part and parcel today of any religious experience – including death.

To read more about the history of Christian hymns, try Baptist Hymn Writers, History of the Christian Hymn, Encyclopedia’s Hymns or Wikipedia’s Hymn.

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