There’s something very special and particularly moving about singing at the graveside. It also seems to be a growing trend; there’s been more call for a graveside singer this year than previous, and with more enquiries in the pipeline too.
Without sounding too grand about it, singing at the final resting place for the person we’ve learned about during the funeral service feels like an honour. We’ve been with the family through the process of choosing funeral music, singing under an open sky (whatever the weather) feels like a natural end to our involvement.
It’s also a time when the family can have whatever music they like, sung live. As opera singers, we spend a lot of the year singing outside, so it’s second nature to us to switch to ‘open air’ with our voices, to ensure our singing travels right across the cemetery. (Much to the surprise and often delight of others tending graves, or even digging them!)
We sing outside using a wireless speaker and backing tracks (no microphones). So we don’t need much, just a space for our bag and small speaker, so the mourners can hear the music clearly. We take our cue from the presiding clergy or celebrant, and often the family and friends will join in singing. It’s almost as if the move outside helps lift the mood a little, as we move from a very focussed service in a small space to being part of the outside world again.
Often, the journey from church to cemetery is just a case of a short drive – traffic willing of course! So, we’ve learned to arrive early at the church, park right by the exit, and make a swift departure to ensure we’re ready and waiting at the cemetery when the family arrive.
However, it doesn’t always go to plan! Soprano Toni sang for one family where she travelled by train to the church, as we often do when singing in London and surrounds. How would she get to the cemetery? No problem it had been arranged, a family member would give her a lift.
Due to traffic, a 5 minute drive slowly crawled into nearly 20 mins. So when she eventually arrived and found a parking space, she suddenly realised no one knew where the grave actually was. She started to walk towards a likely spot – and realised it was the wrong one. Luckily, the cortège arrived after her (we still don’t know how – they left well before) but it helped Toni locate the right spot! We’ve also had clergy lost en route, had major log jams of cars at the cemetery gates, had sat navs taking family to long-closed gates, and mourners sprinting up paths in their heels.
Far less stressful are the short walks from cemetery chapel to the grave, where nobody can get lost, there’s no rush, and people have time to reflect and talk to each other without worrying about traffic or sat navs. These small chapels also give an intimate feel to the service, which can also be broadcast outside for those unable to fit in.
The British weather can be an issue at any time of year, varying from scorching heat to heavy rain, wind and biting cold. For us, the cold is the worst; it affects our voices and it’s tricky to sing when your teeth are chattering! However, we have a wardrobe full of furry boots, thick winter wool coats, gloves, scarves and thermals, plus those reusable hand-warmers that activate with a click of a metal disc.
One large Irish family solved the issue with a large canopy over the whole graveside area, and a green carpet to stand on. It kept off the rain and prevented shoes becoming wet on grass too, a neat solution that enabled all the family to be there alongside final resting place. It felt very appropriate, therefore, to sing “Fields of Athenry” outside, looking out over the surrounding landscape.
Graveside can also include other tributes. For the funeral of an Sicilian ice cream king, Toni sang opera at the graveside against the backdrop of the gentleman’s own ice cream van. The family also released white doves in his father’s memory, a lovely touch against a rather dull grey sky. We were very impressed with the dove lady who, when one wriggled free a little early, simply produced a ‘spare’ from her smart wicker basket. One thing was certain, with the traffic building, the doves would be home long before she would be!