I have played for a wide range of ceremonies in my time. My own beliefs concerning the supernatural, spiritual and so on have yet to crystallise and I can’t share the convictions of those who ask me to perform. But this allows me to entertain pretty well any view and ‘try it for size’ for the duration of the event.
Ceremonies are very important to the people who stage them and, one assumes, to most of those who attend. Birthdays, weddings and hand fastings, christenings and other baby-naming ceremonies all come with high expectations and, although often very enjoyable, are never especially easy. But the hardest, by a country mile, are funerals. I’m not talking about the wake, the party afterwards. I mean the burial or cremation, the ceremony itself.
The most difficult have been those where I have known the deceased and so know the bereaved. Not only is the pressure immense but I am also grieving and feeling empathy with the other mourners. Even when I have known neither the departed nor any others present I find it impossible to remain detached, especially when the circumstances surrounding the funeral are especially harrowing.
For one such event I was asked to play some ‘Buddhist’ flute. What was required was some bamboo flute with an Indian, Chinese or Japanese flavour, something I can do well enough. I was to lead the mourners from the chapel to the grave and play while the coffin was lowered in. Again, I was happy to oblige and well within my comfort zone. But then came a question for me: “How much do you charge?”
So how much should one charge for a funeral? For family and friends obviously I couldn’t accept a fee but this was a professional engagement. It took place within walking distance of my house and would take two hours at most, including travel. I can’t remember what my hourly rate was at the time but if it was £20 that would make the fee £40. Easy. But on the other hand I didn’t want to exploit anyone, especially after they had just lost someone close. Just because I don’t have any religious beliefs doesn’t mean I lack compassion. Feeling like one the folk preparing Scrooge for his funeral (they take everything he has that might fetch a few pennies, even his bed linen) I asked for twenty quid. Of course this probably made the person who had engaged me to play for her best friend feel like a cheapskate and suspect my competence.
Next question: what to wear? Normally I would wear black suit, white shirt, black tie – the default attire in the UK. More often these days people are choosing to celebrate the life led rather than mourn its passing, making for a less sombre dress code. This funeral was to be one of those. “Wear something bright and colourful,” I was told. So I did.
The service itself was truly awful. The husband, left with two very young children, was inconsolable. I had no difficulty in engaging with the emotional tenor of the occasion. Tears were streaming down my face as I prepared to lead everyone, pied-piper fashion to the graveside. But then the priest informed the congregation that the grave was in the new part of the cemetery, across the dual carriageway. “If you would all like to get into your cars and follow the hearse back to the main road. Turn right and then right again at the first roundabout.”
Like any good musician I improvised. As I was seated near the back I hastened outside, my multicoloured stripy jumper totally at odds both with the occasion and the mood I wished to express, and began playing as everyone emerged. If I couldn’t play them to the grave I could at least play them to their cars. Except that, once out of the building, no one moved. They stood like statues, with no idea how they were supposed to behave, listening reverently. The situation was as new to them as it was to me and I realised they weren’t going to get into their cars and drive off until I released them. So I stopped and they left me with my patron who, having come to town on the train for the day, was also without a car. She forced some money on me (more than we’d agree) and headed for the ladies’ loo. For an instant I wondered if I should wait and help her find the rest of the mourners but then thanked her and legged it through the cemetery (why hadn’t I brought my bike?) to the dual carriageway. Dodging the traffic I made it across to the area containing the grave. I quickly spotted the assembly and hurried over to find the undertaker looking anxiously at his watch and the priest asking what had kept me.
After the ritual words and prayers I played in the appointed manner as the coffin was lowered into the ground and earth and flowers were thrown on top. And so the final question: When should I stop? (or How much is enough?) There was no one to give me the nod that says ‘thanks, you can shut up now’. Although I wanted to give value for money I am a firm believer that one person’s music is another’s noise pollution and that silence is greatly underrated. (There – I do have firm beliefs after all.) After a while I walked slowly backwards, playing long notes all the time, until I felt I had drifted out of earshot. Finally I turned and walked home feeling both privileged and deeply moved but utterly drained and unable to work for the rest of the day.