So, a funeral organist. I expect that you are picturing a pale, gaunt girl with long black hair and sorrowful eyes? Well I’m very sorry to disappoint. I admit that I can be a little introverted at times but I have a healthy glow, a healthy oestrogen-fuelled obsession with all things fluffy, shiny or shoe-related and a surprisingly healthy interest in the living. I am, however, aware that my personality is a touch more morbid and irreverent than most because, no matter what the clergy may tell you, repetitive exposure to bereavement breeds a cold detachment when it comes to matters of mortality and dying and consequently I have become somewhat desensitised to the whole grim business of death over the last few years. This desensitisation has manifested itself in my wicked and often wildly inappropriate sense of humour and although the reader might consider this to be an unfortunate affliction in my particular line of work, I must point out that I have never met a funeral director without a mischievous sense of humour and I was once reliably informed by a professional pallbearer that comedy is the emotional anaesthetic of choice that is used in the industry to keep depression at bay. Apparently the humourless go mad, take to drink or become morbidly obsessed with death in a creepy, skulking-around-the-churchyard-at-night kind of way.
Adopting a perversely cheerful approach goes some way to numbing the emotional pressures of the job, but it is also essential that I do not engage directly with the bereaved families because even the slightest twinge of sympathy would drive me quickly into the darkest depression. Hence I typically watch the funeral proceedings from the organ bench with a professional and respectful air of decorum and I feign empathy with the family when on show before the congregation, but I am careful to maintain a certain degree of aloofness so that I am not swallowed up by the sorrowfulness of the service.
One favourite technique that I employ when I detect a tear forming in the corner of my eye is to detach myself from my surroundings and observe the congregation like an experimental psychologist or an inquisitive child at a zoo. This voyeuristic treatment of the congregation provides the perfect distraction when I sense the gloomy spectres of sorrow and sympathy prowling around and it has cultivated within me a curious obsession with human behaviour at funerals. I find the broad spectrum of emotions on display to be fascinating; some families are inconsolable and they weep continually throughout the service, while others glare at their watches and wait impatiently for the sermon to end. In-fighting between families can be hugely entertaining with some funerals descending into full-on brawls at the back of the church. Eulogies are always interesting to listen to, although somewhat predictable; a sociable and outgoing character (read: loud and annoying), a keen sports player (read: not particularly academically gifted), a shy individual (read: reclusive and socially awkward). A brief synopsis of an entire lifetime in ten minutes, or however long the vicar can spare before his lunch. The deceased’s life flashing before my eyes.
I play the organ for funerals and weddings at various churches around the parish but I have been the resident organist at St. Bartholomew’s Church for some time now. St. Bartholomew’s has been my ‘family church’ for many years; I was baptised there, my parents and my grand-parents were married there and my school held regular trips to visit the church when I was a young child. The exterior of the building epitomises the perfect chocolate-box village church and it is a honeypot for prospective brides-to-be, but the interior is cold and dark even on the sunniest of days as the narrow windows allow very little light to enter into the building and the small lamps hanging from the rafters are too high to illuminate the entire main body of the church or to be dusted by the short, frail elderly ladies who clean the church every Saturday morning. Consequently the lights on the organ console and pedal board must remain switched on at all times to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight and my music books are constantly bathed in a dull, yellow wash that causes the notes on the page to skip and dance before my eyes, most often when attempting the most complex voluntary. But lighting issues aside, the church has a wonderfully idyllic and antiquated character and it is amazing how a few well-placed flowers can bring a homely feel to the gloomiest of interiors.
My former school still runs regular trips to the church for the children to engage in the popular curriculum-dodging pastime of grave rubbing, although I expect that a large group of excitable kids running in and out of the headstones, trampling on the flowers and crayoning over the headstones will soon be stamped out by the present incumbent. These children are most likely the source of the rumour that a stone angel from one of the grave monuments moves around the churchyard at night. The congregation - and even the vicar himself - are aware of these rumours and each time I visit the church for a late night hymn practice I have to remind myself that I am a rational and sensible adult and I don’t believe in that kind of superstitious nonsense, while all the time stealing quick glances from the organ loft into the darkness of the church. Even the slightest creak from the timbers has me rummaging in my bag for my mobile phone!