On November 13th, 2015 I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I know, it sounds like a strong statement, and you might be expecting me to follow up with something that would only expose me for my hyperbole. Something comic perhaps. Perhaps about food. After all, true profundity is fleeting. As life can be.
The reality of it though is that on November 13th, 2015 I was attending a funeral and it was a piece of music that affected me so significantly. Some friends from our church had just had their world rocked with the news of their eldest son’s passing. The funeral was that of Mackenzie May.
As some of you may know, I have been a musician for many years. I’ve always loved the power music can have in making us feel something. Songs combine music and lyrics to do this, but there is other music out there of course where the music alone conveys the feeling. I just love this aspect of music. And in the case of the funeral on November 13th, I expected it to be emotional, but I didn’t expect the encounter we were to have with something so powerful and so real.
My wife and I have always felt a connection to Mackenzie’s parents even despite the fact that the friendship is still young there hasn’t been time to live much life around one another yet. We’ve been like magnets that are not quite close enough to move one another in closer. Still, there is a pulling. Bevan, Mackenzie’s father, and I have lots in common. Almost a creepy amount actually. We both think similar ways about things, and we approach the things we do with the same kind of full-on commitment. Because of this, Kristy and Rhonda, Mackenzie’s mother, have a common distinction in that they have to live with someone who is like Bevan and I. Always going big. Never going home. And so because of this and other good connections there is a kinship of sorts. A relationship significant enough that the news of Mackenzie’s death was heart breaking for Kristy and I as it was for so many others. We were, and are, so sad for the May family.
Bevan and Rhonda had told me a number of times that I reminded them of their son, Mackenzie, who was living in Edmonton at the time of his death. I believe that I did eventually meet him, but only once I think. I resemble him and of course there’s the music connection. At 23 years old, he was a student at the University of Alberta studying music. More than this he is obviously much loved by many friends and family. The funeral was a full house. Many expressions of love poured out, including a beautiful and poignant poem by Mackenzie’s aunt. And of course there was lots of music. Mackenzie had the music bug having been involved with music in one way or another for most of his youth. Mackenzie was a member of The Calgary Stampede Showband a number of years ago, and it was clear he had left his mark as a trumpet player and was fast becoming a true performer. It was these connections from his past though that brought about a profound moment on the day of Mackenzie May’s funeral.
Mackinley, Mackenzie’s younger brother, had an inspired idea. Having also been involved in the Stampede Showband, he arranged for some 26 alumni from The Calgary Stampede Showband brass section to play a tribute to Mackenzie. For over ten years the band has played a particular piece as a welcome to new members and well as to thank existing members for their dedication. This piece is also played to remember past members as the ones who laid the foundation for what the band has been able to achieve. It was with this sentiment that Mackinley had his idea to honour his brother. At the funeral this group of alumni performed over Mackenzie a most fitting send-off in a very powerful way.
When the time came in the service, the 26 members of the band stood around the perimeter of the room facing inward towards Mackenzie’s casket which was in turn surrounded by his family and friends. The piece they would play was introduced by two members of the band. The piece that was played was beautiful and powerful. As the piece began, music filled the room as these young people played their sad goodbye to one of their own. Their conductor stood in the centre of the room conducting with her arms and slowly turning in place so as to be able to periodically face all of the players. She gracefully lead them in their solemn last post for Mackenzie. A send-off that soared with increasing intensity until it was deafening at it’s climax. This was no typical musical high point either. Brass has power. It was as though every atom in the room was vibrating it’s own individual harmony. A climax that made us all take notice. We were all carried somewhere in that profound moment of greatest crescendo. It was a visceral and tangible sense of Mackenzie being lifted in the music and sent off, and in this lifting, we were all lifted and moved. Much in the way one might follow a guest who is departing to the door on their way out, the music ushered us all to the door to say our good byes and safe journeys, but only Mackenzie would pass through. As for the rest of us, we were left wrecked. Splintered edges showing, it was in this moment that caused for many an undoing of our composure. Tears flooding in as all of the life in the room realized the significance of the moment. As the music faded, the space was filled with sobs of release and such abject grief. And of course the music had to end. And of course it did. Leaving us all somehow more alive than before.
Upon leaving the church at the end of the funeral I had a very unusual feeling of honour. Honour to have been able to be a part of that event and this moment I experienced. After the service some of us spoke of it and even the thought of it brought more tears to some of us. It has since struck me, when was the last time the mere thought of a moving song or musical piece was enough to bring back the actual emotion of hearing it? Usually you have to experience it again to feel it again. It might sound odd but I was almost glad I got to experience this moment. Though I wish it could have happened without our friends losing their son. Even though I didn’t have much of a relationship with Mackenzie, I will forever remember his funeral, and therefore him. All because of an inspired idea his younger brother had. Upon discussing this moment with Bevan, he shared that there have been a number of people since the funeral who have mentioned the brass piece. I know it was profound for me, but I hear it was profound for others as well. I’m not surprised. It was one of those moments in life that you can’t really expect or plan on exactly, but when they happen you just know it’s important that you hold on and remember.
The funeral was recorded and video taped. I got a hold of these recordings and re-mastered the audio from the brass piece. The recording equipment was almost overwhelmed by the volume of the performance, but I was able to refine it somewhat and replace the original audio on the video to create the below excerpt so you can experience this moment I have written about in some way. It’s true that the video might not be able to do it justice. Oh to be able to package a moment like that… My recommendation is to listen loud on the best audio listening system or device you can round up. In my opinion this is the only way to come close to being able to experience the kind of power that was there that day.
I share this with you all today, on May 25th, 2016, which is Mackenzie’s birthday. He would have been 24 today.