"Death and Taxes": Singing for Funerals, The Fountain of Youth, and the Brittleness of Mortality

"Death and Taxes": Singing for Funerals, The Fountain of Youth, and the Brittleness of Mortality

Everyone always thinks that the life of a professional musician is glamorous. Their picture is The Beatles, with millions of screaming fans devouring every song. Their image is of The Rolling Stones, jet-setting and drugging to every “sextreme.” The reality is, unless you’re Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, you’re going to have to take some gigs that might not be as glamorous.

Case-in-point: I’m a musician at a church where I’m in a rotation to sing at funerals. I’ve been doing it since the beginning of 2014 and, at first, I was shaken. Not only do you have to compose yourself enough solely because it’s a funeral, but you have to stand in front of the mourners and sing for 3/4ths of the service! It wears on your mind, body, and soul. After the third or fourth time, you start to get the rhythm of things and you face the funeral, not as a sobfest, but a chance to share in the evolution of a family. I often sum up my experiences of singing at funerals thusly: “I didn’t know the person and I’ll never know ’em, but at least I could play this part in their lives.”

Yet, of course, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do for a living. You are providing comfort to these bereaving families and helping them through with some of the most exquisite music ever written. Ave Maria, Panis Angelicus, Amazing Grace, On Eagle’s Wings – the message and the melody of these songs heal every aching heart.

During these funerals, as I am not one of the bereaved, I have time to ponder the philosophy behind the events that have all gathered us up in this one room. “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin once said. And, while death is inevitable, it is still worth exploring.

In the news lately, there have been a plethora of shootings, stabbings, terrorist attacks, and bloodshed. We are constantly having our mortality brought to the forefront of our lives, making us question what the meaning of it all really is. Each person is their own entity and some see death as a release, while some see it as an enemy to be eradicated as soon as possible. Ever since Ponce de Leon set out to find The Fountain of Youth, we as a collective entity have been searching for the secret to cheat death. Some turn to healthier living, some turn to experimental drugs and medication, and some turn to procedures like plastic surgery. But, despite their best efforts, they all succumb in the end.

Our mortality is a curious thing indeed. For some, it takes a mountain falling on them to kill them at age 115, while some die before they are even technically a living being. The light of our lives is a precious gift, but it’s all to easily snuffed out. With all the hateful rhetoric of politicians and terrorists, anger is at an all-time high. People are losing faith in the system and lashing out at their fellow man. Neighbors are turning against neighbors and families against families. The very fabric of our society is unraveling.

“All our times have come, Here, but now they’re gone. Seasons don’t fear the reaper nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” Those lyrics by the Blue Oyster Cult become more relevant every single day. The passing of the seasons, and of the years, don’t dissuade death. But, what do these seasons contain besides this dread fear? They hold birth, life, and the ecstatic drive of living beings.

We’re all too quick to focus on the negativity swirling around us. I admit to falling prey to this, as I’m sure all of you will as well. I’m reminded of the words of the Austrian Woman from John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer:

“I have no fear

Of death.

I’d rather die alone, If I must,

though I’d hate to drown.”

We can all rant and rave all we want but, at the end of the day, we know we’ll have to pay the piper.

So, you might ask, what’s the solution to all of this? Well, there isn’t any! The only alternative is to live our lives as fully and beautifully as possible. Take a look at the world around you, at the trees and buildings that are a monument to the power of nature and humanity. Follow that old adage of John Lennon: “Make Love, Not War!” Reassess your life: are you living every day remembering that, though evil does exist in the world, life is a unique and brilliant experience?

It’s so easy to give up, but it’s more rewarding to pick yourself up and find the little joys in life to savor, chew, and masticate.

We’re all gonna end up in that box in the ground one day, but don’t spend your life digging the hole to put it in.

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