The work of a church musician is a service profession. Hanna Seppänen is a cantor-organist and church musician who is employed as an organist at the Helsinki Parish Union, primarily based at the Hietaniemi Cemetery. She first started working at the cemetery ten years ago as a substitute, while still a church music student. After completing her organ studies, her work at the Hietaniemi Cemetery continued.
“I grew to like this place as a student ten years ago when filling in for the long-serving church musician at that time. Although I subsequently moved on to do other things, I eventually came back.”
A cantor is a professional musician with specific musical knowledge and skills, serving the parish through a range of occasions, such as weddings, masses, baptisms or confirmations. Seppänen’s job description, however, is quite unique in Finland, as it is almost exclusively limited to funerals.
“Usually, a parish church musician’s work encompasses many different types of occasions, anything from weddings and funerals to choir rehearsals, for example, whereas the Helsinki Parish Union’s four cemetery church musicians work exclusively to provide music for funerals at the Hietaniemi, Malmi and Honkanummi Cemeteries. My primary location as a cemetery church musician is Hietaniemi.”
This rare arrangement is dictated by the sheer size of the parish and the number of funerals that are organised in each of its districts. Helsinki has a large population with many funerals each year. Pastors officiate funerals in many different churches, while church musicians typically serve at a designated church.
Funeral arrangements usually follow a familiar pattern. A relative arranging a family member’s funeral often contacts the funeral home first. The funeral is then planned in cooperation between the relatives, the pastor and the funeral home. When it is time to think about funeral music, the pastor puts the family member in contact with Seppänen. The church musician’s task is to plan and deliver the musical component of the funeral.
The family discusses their music choices for the funeral with Hanna Seppänen. It is helpful for a cantor to have an open mind. Music requests can be anything from traditional church music to Bach or even techno. Through her work, Seppänen has learned that there are as many music tastes as there are people.
“Music requests cover a wide range – both stylistically and in terms of difficulty. Even classical music requests can be diverse. If, for example, a piano piece or a choral or orchestral work is requested for a funeral, I have to assess whether it can be arranged for the organ with just a week’s notice, for example. My goal is to never have to say no.”
The versatility of Seppänen’s work comes from fulfilling the diverse wishes. The number of specific music requests is significant simply because one working day can include up to five funerals. Seppänen typically plays 10–15 funerals a week.
The most common wish for the funeral service is for it to reflect the personality of the deceased. Quite often, the family is aware of specific wishes left by the deceased – whenever these have been recorded, Seppänen is happy to honour them. She thinks it is important to listen to and acknowledge the relatives’ plans, but sometimes she has to tone down their expectations due to the tight schedule or specific organ arrangement requirements.
“The family may have searched and listened to music online to help make choices for the funeral, or sometimes they may request a particularly meaningful piece of music, for example a song from the couple’s history together. With genres such as popular music, it is often a good idea to review the lyrics first to determine whether they are appropriate for the service. In most cases, however, we can find a compromise that works for everyone.”
The choice of music must also reflect the specific nature of the event as a sacred ordinance and an occasion of worship. The music must be suitable for a Christian burial service.
Sometimes there are no specific wishes, or the family is not aware of the scope of music that can be chosen for the service. In these instances, the church musician may ask family members about their loved one’s favourite music as a starting point for choosing music for the funeral. Many are not familiar with organ repertoire, or the versatility of the instrument.
Seppänen says that every funeral is a unique occasion. Although the context – a funeral – always remains the same, individual services are often varied in terms of music and overall character. This is what makes the work motivating.
“One could think that playing funerals for a living would be repetitive or monotonous, but it is quite the opposite. Musically speaking, each occasion is different.”
It is impossible to describe a stereotypical funeral – however, there are certain pieces of music which feature regularly.
“The older generation has a clearer understanding of what funerals are like and what the planning involves. Perhaps the most typical format includes opening and closing music played on the organ, floral tributes, one or two hymns as well as the pastor’s words, including prayers. Music is often heard in the beginning or the end of the service, or as an interlude after the committal. There is a list of a dozen so-called funeral hymns, which I play often, including hymns 338 (“Day By Day, and With Each Passing Moment”), 30 (“The Earth Is Beautiful”) and 971 (“Guardian Angel”).
Today, many have a distant relationship with the church and the occasional services it provides, and this is reflected in the funerals. Regardless of their relationship with the church, every deceased person in Finland is entitled to a funeral service. The services of a pastor and church musician as well as a funeral service are automatically provided to parishioners without any expense, and a burial committal officiated by a pastor is always included in a church funeral service.
It is also possible to organise a memorial service without a church ceremony, with the coffin or urn present and a tailored program including external musicians. Even in these cases, one thing remains unchanged: music is an important part of funerals.
“A funeral is an occasion where people come to grieve, and music helps them to connect to their grief. Music is a powerful medium and it evokes a multitude of feelings. Somehow, it can penetrate deeper than words.”
Some want their event to be as bright as possible, while others opt for music that does not evoke intense emotions, to keep their grief under control. They may also have specific requests for the pastor’s choice of words.
“At the end of the day, music always evokes emotion. It serves to uplift the mood of the occasion, provide comfort and ease the process of remembering.”
Seppänen’s work week moves at a brisk pace, with work commitments booked for several months ahead. Funerals are organised from Tuesday to Saturday each week, which means that a funeral musician’s “weekend” runs from Sunday to Monday. In addition to planning and playing funerals, a typical workday also includes researching and learning new repertoire. Some of the rehearsals are run together with external musicians booked for the funeral. This joint rehearsal time at the chapel is typically scheduled for half an hour before each service.
On days with five funerals, Seppänen's workload is significant. Despite this, she always wants to encounter family members in a calm, unhurried and respectful manner. To be able to manage such a hectic work pace, however, solid musical skills and the ability to learn fast are required.
“If you want to provide for good service with just a couple of days’ notice, it is important to have the capacity to acquire new repertoire fast. You also need good ensemble playing skills, as church musicians often accompany other musicians performing at funerals.”
Other crucial attributes include a strong mental skillset and the ability to serve the bereaved, as connecting with the family members of the deceased is a key part of the work. Their grief is present in Seppänen’s every working day.
When the phone rings, one can never predict the state of mind of the person organising the funeral. Before the phone call, Seppänen only knows the name of the deceased, and as the conversation progresses, the caller’s relationship with the deceased becomes clear. Their relationship may have been close or distant, and the context is always affected by the nature of the person’s death, for example when the death had been unexpected. All this needs to be considered when communicating with family members.
“When someone feels completely overwhelmed, expressing your condolences can make their grief resurface, changing the nature of the conversation. Others may keep a certain distance to their grief or may be in a mode where the funeral represents another task to be dealt with. Grief manifests itself differently in different people and sometimes gives no outward indication, which is always something to be considered in this work. This has become second nature through experience.”
Seppänen does not deny the effect of grief on her own life and work.
“Other people's grief is always moving, but certain situations, such as funerals for children, can feel particularly poignant. However, grief is felt very differently when it comes through work instead of a personal connection with the deceased. It feels very natural for me to encounter grieving people.”
Seppänen says that although the grief of family members and friends does affect her, she consciously chooses to support and comfort them instead of getting too tangled up with someone else’s grief.
“If a family member of the deceased wants to share something with me, I will listen and give them space, but I never pry. It is often comforting for them just to talk about music.”
At the same time, Seppänen’s work gives her access to matters of deep significance.
“Grief is always a sign of missing someone you care about. This is what connects my work to something very real”.
Feature photo: The organs of the old chapel at Hietaniemi Cemetery. Photo by Loviisa Pihlakoski.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham