Collegium Cantorum attended the funeral of one of our own, Elizabeth Burris. She served as the Music Department secretary, but that doesn’t say anything about the enormous amounts of work she did and her tireless defense of that work. When pressed by others to take it easy – she had a host of medical issues, including the cancer that eventually killed her – she responded “you don’t know what I do.” She told us this before singing for us and demonstrating what a musician in essence is.
We knew how special she was. But it’s still really striking to go into her church and see nearly the whole world pay its respect, with emotion flowing from all corners. The church was African Methodist Episcopal. My own mother, not usually one sensitive to these issues, once remarked when reading the University of Dallas’ alumni magazine: “Don’t any black people go to your school?” I chuckled, but I know how true that is. I was still surprised by the funeral.
Liturgy generally is structured so nothing is wasted. The whole idea is that everything is sacred for a brief period of time, everything has meaning that suggests another world. It’s almost impossible to create a liturgy where everyone is paying attention to every detail and is aware of its full significance. Almost impossible.
I obviously can’t replicate the experience I had. I’d have to show you the organist, still visibly shaken, not miss a note while playing continuously. Gather the tone of the various clergy who came up and spoke about their many serious encounters with her. It wasn’t just that she was someone who attended church. She let other people into her life and shared as well as gave. A pastor who’d known her since 7th grade got up and talked about her love of Arkansas, how they met as the first few black students to attend an almost whites-only school, and how his own wife wouldn’t let him own a pick-up truck (this was a comment made about how supportive she was of her husband). Tell about the music, which was as fun as it was moving, and convey something of Elizabeth’s power as a teacher. Many called her stern, jokingly. The results spoke for themselves.
A life well-lived might make the world. The congregation of the church emphasized her faith in God and her loyalty to them initially. But after speaker after speaker, after our tribute, after all the others in the room united, you knew faith wasn’t loyalty to an institution, no matter how much in life it might work that way. There’s a lesson in here. I wish I could teach it.