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by Clarissa Moll

As young girls, my sisters and I sang “Abide with Me” when performing Barbie funerals. With all of our Barbie dolls lined up in rows, we’d intone the most somber hymn we knew. It was a hymn sung at our church during sad occasions – the Challenger explosion and the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. The words painted a foreboding picture: “The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide.” It seemed appropriate to bid farewell to a beloved Ken or Barbie to this sort of song.

Though my sisters and I regularly sang about death at home (we liked Barbie story lines with high drama), we rarely sang about it at church. Thirty years later, references to death and dying have almost entirely vanished from modern worship and hymnody, except for when we sing about Jesus’ death or heaven. We are comfortable raising our hands in praise as we sing about eternal glory or Christ’s sacrifice. However, words like decay or death disturb us when we stumble upon them in the fourth or fifth stanza of an antique hymn. We like to sing about our frailty and mortality only in the future tense – when it has already been transformed by Christ, and so we sing stanzas one, two, and six.

Through the centuries, hymns have acted as channels through which doctrine was transmitted to the lay person in a memorable way (using rhythm, rhyme and tune). Today, the hymns can aid us as we seek to re-envision a Christian way of dying in our congregations. They should not be used only for solemn occasions like funerals. Hymns that speak of death and dying ought be a regular part of our worship experience. These sacred songs are a beautiful teaching tool, instructing the church on how to approach death and how to die.

Hymns acknowledge the emotions that surround dying.

We like to think of ourselves as able to manage our emotions in public. It’s okay to become teary-eyed when the children’s choir sings or to get a bit of fire in our bellies after an inspiring sermon. But fear, anger, sorrow, despair? They’re not quite as welcome for public display on a Sunday morning. For the dying and those who support them, this resistance to emotion can make going to church difficult. It’s hard to sit in church Sunday after Sunday, carrying a heavy weight, and hear only joy and praise. Into this complex emotional milieu come the hymns, bearing with them an honest articulation of the emotional weight many in our congregations bear. Good hymns about dying use vivid imagery to express the emotions that are a part of dying and caring for those who are at death’s door. They give those difficult emotions a space in worship, an opportunity to be placed before God and redeemed in His presence. Indeed, including this type of music can heighten the whole congregation’s praise as we acknowledge how deeply we need Christ’s presence.

Hymns give words to our grief and provide words for those who comfort us.

In times of intense sorrow, we are often at a loss for words – to express ourselves or to comfort others. We buy a sympathy card, but can’t think of what to say. We’d like to visit a dying person, but we aren’t sure what to talk about. Hymns about death and dying can offer timeless words of comfort, expressing the sorrow of those who grieve and the tenderness of those who wish to care for them. Their inclusion in worship allows the whole congregation to support the grieving ones, a corporate session in music therapy, where both the words and the notes themselves can provide balm for the hurting soul.

Hymns place the event of death along the trajectory of heaven.

There is no hymn about death and dying that remains in sorrow. Whether hope soars or merely glimmers in the final stanza, it is there. Hymns that actively engage the topic of death are grounded in the truth that the grave is not the end. This benefits the congregation in two ways. First, it reminds and comforts the grieving: death has no victory for the believer. Even in our darkest hour of grief, we know we are not left hopeless. The praise included in these hymns, and in other parts of the worship service remind us. Second, these hymns allow congregants not only to rejoice in eternal bliss but to prepare for their own deaths. For the believer, death’s door is the gate to glory. And it serves us well, both now and in our dying hour, to understand both sides of that passageway.

In our Barbie funerals, we only ever sang verse one of “Abide with Me.” It was the only one for which we knew all the words. I didn’t know that Henry Lyte had penned the words as he was dying of tuberculosis in 1847 – and that he had written eight verses. As an adult, I have taken much comfort in his final verse. In these words, Lyte expresses both the sadness and joy that death brings for the believer – sorrow for the closing of “life’s little day” and joy for the abiding presence of the Savior.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Hymns about Death and Dying:

Abide with Me
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
I Fall Asleep in Jesus’ Wounds
Jesus, I Live to Thee
Why Do We Mourn Departing Friends?
When My Last Hour is Close at Hand
For Me to Live is Jesus
Children of the Heavenly Father
O Sacred Head Now Wounded
Be Still My Soul
Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense
The King of Love My Shepherd Is
All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night 

Find more hymns about death and dying at:

The Lutheran Hymnal Online
NetHymnal
Hymnal.net

Clarissa Moll teaches workshops on the public reading of Scripture.

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5 thoughts on “Singing Through Our Tears

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing. This is an important reflection, given that many churches have abandoned their heritage of hymns. Will they be equipped to handle this type of grief?

    There’s a movement afoot among young folks to recapture hymns for Christians by setting them to new music. You can read about it here:
    http://www.zachicks.com/the-hymns-movement

    I might also add a lesser-known hymn on grief and suffering by Frances Ridley Havergal (writer of “Take My Life and Let it Be”), called, “Light After Darkness”:

    Light after darkness, gain after loss,
    Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
    Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
    Home after wandering, praise after tears.

    Sheaves after sowing, sun after rain,
    Sight after mystery, peace after pain;
    Joy after sorrow, calm after blast,
    Rest after weariness, sweet rest at last.

    Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
    Love after loneliness, life after tomb;
    After long agony, rapture of bliss,
    Right was the pathway, leading to this.

    We’ve set this hymn text to a melody here:

    Anyway, thanks for the great reflection.

  2. I’ll 2nd Zac Hicks on this.

    I love verse three from Elizabeth Prentiss’s hymn “More Love, O Christ, to Thee

    3 Let sorrow do its work,
    Send grief and pain;
    Sweet are Thy messengers,
    Sweet their refrain,
    When they can sing with me,
    More love, O Christ, to Thee.
    More love, O Christ, to Thee,
    More love to Thee!

    you can hear Nathan Partain’s lovely version here.
    [audio src="http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1309853/MoreLoveOChrist_NP.mp3" /]

  3. two thots:
    1. my greatest concern isn’t necessarily that churches will abandon hymns altogether in favor of praise and worship music (although, that’s certainly unfortunate). i’m most saddened at the thought that, in the time of need – when we reach back to these hymns, they won’t be familiar to us and won’t feed our souls in the way that familiar scriptures and spiritual songs “hidden in our hearts” are able to do.

    2. zac and cardiphonia note fresh hymn tunes to old words. very cool. i’d also be interested in learning more about new hymns or spiritual songs being written that deal with the subject of death and dying. new meaning 20th or 21st century, that is!

  4. When my mother’s life was being made smaller and smaller by dementia, the only thing left near the end were Bible verses and hymns. Those were the two things that made her eyes glisten and a slight smile come on her face. Hymns (music) are extremely important at these times.

    An excellent post. Thank you, Clarissa.

    Marty

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