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How to Develop a Requiem Choir: A Congregational Ministry for Funerals

In the midst of life, we are in death.” But fewer and fewer of us share in the sad, sometimes openly commercial rituals that surround our final passage in this culture—more and more grieving family and close friends mourn by themselves.

Yet death is of communal concern. What’s more, the biblical mandate of extending comfort to the sorrowing also implies a willingness to accept graciously and sincerely the Christian community’s support when a loved one dies. When a member of the community dies, Christians have every reason to gather where they gather each week to hear and consider once again God’s promise of everlasting life to those who believe, to share with the grieving in their loss, and also—not just coincidentally—to worship the God who fulfills promises.

When we gather for a funeral, often joined by friends or relatives of the deceased who are not members of the congregation, the service should include as many aspects of regular Sunday worship as possible—including congregational singing. Congregational singing quickly converts what can too easily become a service presented to the people into a service of the people and for God. As Marva Dawn writes, God should be both subject and object of worship.

Congregational singing is one of the most important things we do in public worship, both in keeping our worship priorities straight and for its pastoral benefits. No funeral should be without it. (The same is true of weddings, though as a church musician, I’ve long ago concluded that there is far better hope proclaiming the gospel at funerals than at weddings.)

Sometimes those in acute grief find it hard to sing. Yet they may long to hear the church’s song, even if their participation is vicarious. At that moment, the singing of the people becomes one of the strongest actions of support a grieving family can receive. To support a grieving family, consider starting a requiem choir (requiem is the Latin word for rest).

A requiem choir’s chief purpose is to guide and assist the whole congregation in singing the church’s song. Visitors who might not be familiar with all the psalms or hymns chosen for the service will sing with more confidence because of the choir’s leadership.

Here are some suggestions for forming a requiem choir in your congregation:

  • Check the topical index of your hymnal; most include a fine list of psalms and hymns for funeral use.
  • Have the choir sing songs that will be unfamiliar to those attending the funeral, whether in unison or four-part harmony, according to the number and skill of singers present. Encourage the congregation to follow in their hymnals so they can worship along with the choir. Anthems are also a possibility.
  • Plan for the choir to sing at least one item by itself. Choirs tend to feel a bit more sense of purpose if they have at least one piece that is theirs to offer for the people to hear.
  • Solicit church members and even others who are likely to be available. Include high school students too. For all their youthful exuberance and feelings of invulnerability, they also need to grow in the awareness of human frailty and of God’s promise of eternal life. Their support is of great inspiration to adults—and perhaps of even greater growth benefit to themselves.
  • Construct a telephone list of singers in several groups, each with a captain. As soon as the funeral date is set, the pastor or perhaps church secretary notifies one captain, who in turns calls the other captains. Captains then call everyone on their lists.
  • Although the choir need not wear robes, singers will wish to exercise obvious decorum of dress, especially if they are in view of the congregation.
  • The choir should meet a half hour before the service to rehearse the hymns, especially any that are unfamiliar or that the choir will sing by itself. Some requiem choirs have a small group of “standard” choir pieces from which to choose. They initially learn these at a special one-time rehearsal before they begin to function in funerals.

In my experience, the ministry of the requiem choir has been deeply appreciated by those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. At one funeral, there were more people in the choir than in the congregation, and the choir’s singing was the difference between uplifting singing and (likely) no singing at all. Time and again our choir has received thank-you notes from bereaved families for this support ministry. It’s not a great deal of work; it just takes a bit of organization and commitment to the congregation’s expanded ministry. It’s worth the effort.