The Frantic Organist
Playing for the Funeral from Hell
by Mark Quarmby
Some days, no matter how well prepared you are, everything goes wrong. Despite the best intentions and years of experience, some things are always beyond your control. Such was my experience in June 1999 when I encountered a domino effect of one disaster after another. It was the worst funeral I had ever played.
It all started the evening before, as I was about to play for Evensong at the Cathedral. A colleague of mine rang me on my mobile phone to see if I could play for a funeral the following morning, which he was unable to do. I was free in the morning, so I agreed to play. The funeral was to be held at 10.00 am in a Catholic church located a few suburbs away. Having played for weddings at this church on a few occasions, I knew where it was and how to unlock the organ and turn it on. My friend stressed that I be there no later than 9.45 am, as there would be a visiting priest taking the funeral. There would be one hymn, "All things bright and beautiful". Knowing from experience that Catholic churches have no idea what a hymn book is, I packed mine with the required hymn book-marked.
The following morning I arrived at the appointed time. As I walked into the open church, I was surprised to find that there was no coffin, no congregation and no priest! I unlocked the organ and turned it on. By 9.50 I was beginning to worry, so I rang my colleague, only to get his answering machine. I walked up around the altar, hoping I might set off an alarm to get someone's attention. My phone rang! At last, I thought! But no, it was just an enquiry from an interstate cathedral wanting to know if I knew of anybody who might be interested in applying for the job of organist there. I decided to go outside and walk around the church grounds to see if I could find somebody. Perhaps the funeral was at 10.30 or 11.00 am?
Right on 10.00 am a young girl came running over from the school attached to the church. Waving her arms about as if playing a keyboard in mid-air, she called out, "Please tell me you are the organist! There has been a big mix up. The priest told the person who booked you the wrong church. The funeral is at another church in a neighbouring suburb. They are waiting for you. The priest just rang me on the funeral director's mobile phone, as he just realised why you weren't there."
Having played for a couple of weddings in this other church some time ago, I had a rough idea where it was located: not on the main road, but down a narrow side street, on a hill overlooking the harbour. I ran back inside the church, grabbed my music bag and ran to my car. It wasn't until I was approaching the next suburb that I realised that I had left the organ unlocked and switched on. When I later told this story to a Catholic organist, he just laughed and said not to worry, they wouldn't notice for at least six months. (He must know something about the Catholic church I don't.)
About ten minutes later I was driving down the main street of the neighbouring harbour-side suburb. All the streets were lined with parked cars- there was nowhere to park! I had no choice but to park illegally, Parisian-style on a street corner. I remembered that there was a sign pointing down the side street "To Catholic Church". I found the sign and ran down the street and down the hill, almost into the harbour! Where is the church? It has to be here somewhere? I don't remember coming down this hill before. I looked up to my right and there above me on the top of the hill was the historic stone church. (I later discovered that someone had kindly bent the sign to point down the wrong street. Two weeks later, I noticed someone had bent it back again - the sign was now "S"-shaped - to the correct direction.) What was I to do? I didn't have time to run back up the hill and find the correct street. There was no alternative but to scale the cliff through the bush, music bag and all! No sooner had I stepped into the bush than something began to rustle around my feet. I didn't want to know if I had stepped on a snake or not. I took off and by the time I got to the top, dripping with perspiration (it was mid-winter!), I felt I had a chance of making one of the Olympic teams after all!
I ran across the lawn and wondered why the undertakers were smiling. I must have looked a strange sight appearing from the bushes over the cliff's edge. The funeral director handed me an order of service, stating that they had started without me. It was 10.15 am. I noticed the hymn was first. Had they sung it unaccompanied or left it out? I entered the church and discovered that it was packed. Every aisle, except the central one, was full with standing mourners. The deceased had been a senior person in one of the country's largest companies and had died of cancer in his 60s. I had to squeeze past countless people. The side aisle was barely 18 inches wide. Everyone was looking at me as I repeated "Excuse me" over and over. I remembered the electronic organ console was in the left transept. By the time I got to the transept, I was stunned to find the area, including all around the console, packed with people standing. I fought my way to the console, sweat still dripping from my forehead, and collapsed onto the organ bench. Here at last!
It was locked! I couldn't believe it! I thought hard, trying to remember where the key had been hidden the last time I had played here. I suddenly remembered. It was hung on a nail behind the hymn number board beside the altar. I had to get off the bench and force my way through the crowd, in front of the whole congregation and wend my way up to the altar. Sure enough, the key was there. I squeezed my way back to the console, unlocked the cover and pushed the "on" button. No power! I couldn't believe it! I got off the bench again (in full view of most of the congregation) and looked for the power cord and a power point to plug it in to.
No sooner I had turned it on, than the priest announced the second hymn. No one had told me there was a second hymn! I grabbed the order of service to find it was the 23rd Psalm to Crimond. I jumped back on the bench and with no time to select any stops, pushed number 4 of the five General Pistons, believing it would be one notch softer than full organ, and would be loud enough to accompany the packed church. What I hadn't realised was that these "general pistons" were blind; that is, there was no way of knowing which stops were on and which were off. Moreover, changing any stops by hand made no difference whatsoever to the stop combinations which had been set up internally.
I launched into the hymn, playing it from memory, and nearly jumped off the bench when I heard the sound coming out of the speakers. You would have thought you were in a cinema with some Star Wars character about to appear on the overhead projector screen, and the console about to lift off and rise above the congregation! It was impossible to sing along with such a merry-go-round type sound, and it took me two verses to manually set up the stops correctly while I was playing and then switch off the general piston I had pushed. No doubt the tremulants got rid of some cobwebs!
The eulogy followed and the priest began by making two apologies: firstly, for telling the organist the wrong church (which was very decent), and secondly, for the lack of flowers. I hadn't even noticed there weren't any! Apparently the day before there had been a wedding in the church and after the wedding, the family of the deceased removed the wedding flowers and prepared new flowers for the funeral the next day. Later that evening the bride's family returned to take the wedding flowers and took the funeral ones instead!
As the eulogy continued, I heard some sort of commotion in the nave. A very large dog, no doubt belonging to one of the neighbouring houses, came bounding down the central aisle and ran around the coffin barking its head off. No-one knew whether to laugh or cry! After the eulogy the priest announced that we would sing the first hymn. As I still had it book-marked, I flung it open, only to find it wouldn't stay open. I grabbed a pile of MIDI discs which were lying on the console and used them as a page holder.
I then prepared to play Handel's "Largo" for the recessional when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a guy with a long pony tail standing there, telling me not to play, as he was going to play a "track" instead. I saw a large hi-fl system set up behind me, and the coffin was carried out to Frank Sinatra singing "I Did It My Way"! I waited to be paid and found that no one had thought to pay the organist, so I didn't get paid. After all that! I gave the priest my card and about a week later received a cheque from the church for 50% more than I was expecting.
Some days later I was cleaning out my music bag and found the order of service. I hadn't noticed the deceased's surname before: STOREY. What a stor(e)y is all I can say!
After returning home, I posted this story on the internet and received many funny replies. When I turned on my computer early the next morning, still half asleep, to check my emails, you can imagine my shock to find an email from "Jesus". What have I done now, I thought? I was only joking when I said that Catholics didn't know what a hymn book was! I opened the email to find a message from an organist called Jesus Bernal in Mexico City. Whew! A couple of weeks later I received a mug with a picture of a "Frantic Organist" on it from an American journal which later published my story. Here are some of the responses I received from all around the world (only the clean ones are reproduced here!)
I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in my life... that was the funniest thing I ever heard!!!! The highlight was the recessional "I Did It My Way"!!!!!! I can see you scaling the cliff. Oh my, nothing I did this weekend even came close!!!
Have you recovered yet????
I can't believe what you went through. Oh well, at least a snake didn't bite you!
That will teach you for meddling with the RC 's! At least your car didn't get booked.
Seems that a Postlude of "Climb Every Mountain" might have been appropriate.
One of my friends said to me... that my organ teacher (you) must be like James Bond to even attempt to do such a thing! How do you like that?
That sounds like an old-silent B & W film, starring "Charlie Chaplain" (hee hee).
© Mark Quarmby 1999
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