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  • Writer's pictureAlaric Mark Lewis

On a funeral choir and a German nun

In a parish where I served as a deacon there was a funeral choir, a group of elderly volunteers who provided the music for every single funeral. The only prerequisite to being in the funeral choir was that the members couldn't be dead themselves, although I suspect that would have probably been waived if a corpse could have somehow managed to get up to the choir loft. The choir's director and organist was a walking stereotype named Sister Beatrice Hess, a frightfully severe nun whom the junior high kids called Rudolph. A self-taught organist, Sister was very proud of her skills. “I can play any piece of music usink only 'ze vite keysss,” she would boast in an accent as strong as the scent of braunschweiger left too long in the sun. This meant that basically everything was in the key of C whether it was written that way or not, and Sister expected the poor funeral choir – already not the most polished of groups – to have to hit notes so low that Vladimir Pasyoukov (Google him) would growl or so high that Alessandro Moreschi (Google him too) would have to tighten his belt to reach them.

Not long after I arrived in the parish a generous benefactor had left a bequest to redo the organ, and a transposer was installed so that with just a flick of a dial, Sister could play only 'ze vite keysss and the tunes played would be, if not exactly mellifluous, at least more or less in the key in which they were written. This would, in theory, aid the beleaguered funeral choir to produce something other than the usual exequiel ululation which startled many a mourner and challenged altar boys and new deacon alike to keep appropriately sombre straight faces during the rites. This was, however, just a theory, as although Sister did always manage to remember to transpose for the entrance (How Great Thou Art) she almost always forgot to readjust for the offertory, (I Am the Bread of Life), rendering that piece (which already requires a tessitura as wide as a barn door) positively un-singable. The funeral choir would try their best, but on the impossibly high third I will raise you up, it became too painful (for all involved) to continue, so they all just stopped, lest they did permanent damage, not only to their vocal chords but quite possibly to the eardrums of the mourners a well. Undaunted, Sister – with a Teutonic resolve that would have had Brünnhilde herself doffing her winged helmet in respect – would turn around from her perch at the organ and scream the words I WILL RAISE YOU UP, whilst more than one shocked mourner looked to the coffin, perhaps wondering if a voice which could raise the dead had, indeed, raised the dead.

I WILL RAISE YOU UP Sister screeched and, though there was certainly hurt and doubt and confusion present in that church, the conviction with which she caterwauled that line cut through it all to get to a most important point: this – this sadness, this grief, this confusion – would not have the final say. And though there were undoubtedly people in that church who were so lost in their sadness, grief and confusion that they themselves could not completely believe the words being yawped, there was no doubt that Sister Beatrice believed them. And that was something. Maybe it wasn't as comforting as being able to say the words themselves, but it was something.

Knowing that there are people like Sister Beatrice out there in the world, shouting to the very heavens when our own voices may fail us, can be a comfort. I. WILL. RAISE. YOU. UP. Such awareness – such connection – can offer us strength and hope until we feel ready to join in the song ourselves. In whatever way we can. And in whatever key.

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