RALEIGH — Hubert Fort, the band director at Raleigh Moravian Church, wryly observed “this will be an Easter to remember” shortly before leading the church’s nearly-50-piece wind ensemble in another hymn.
During this particular Easter Sunday sunrise service, an al fresco affair held at the Oakwood Cemetery downtown, the heavenly blend of the instruments – trumpets, trombones, tubas, flutes and more – was accompanied by the steady drumbeat of rain on umbrellas held aloft by members of the congregation.
However, many of the band members, daunted by the difficulties of playing their parts while balancing an umbrella, proceeded without any overhead protection.
Nick Shore, 33, an environmental consultant who played alto saxophone, was thankful that a woman stepped up halfway through the service to share her umbrella.
“Some years it is freezing cold. Some years it is quite nice. Some years it is raining,” Shore said philosophically.
Indeed, the rainfall didn’t stop Shore and his wife, Mary Frances, 32, from getting their 3-and-a-half-year-old twins – Tovah and Zoe – up before the crack of dawn so that they could attend the service as a family.
Mary Frances maneuvered the twins in a stroller while also wielding an umbrella as a shield for the three of them.
She and her husband saw the service as a valued tradition they didn’t want to miss.
“It’s something I have done since I was a kid,” said Nick Shore, who made his debut in a Moravian Church band at age 10. “Easter and Christmas, you’re at the church or in the cemetery.”
‘With the church triumphant’
Holding Easter sunrise services at a cemetery is a Moravian tradition dating back to 1732, with the idea that a place of burial was a fitting site for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“The Lord is risen!” the Rev. Craig Troutman proclaimed shortly after dawn at Sunday’s service.
“The Lord is risen indeed!” replied the congregation.
“It’s a celebration of the resurrection,” Troutman said in an interview. “It’s the idea of worshipping, as we say in the liturgy, worshipping with the church triumphant in heaven as well as the church on earth. So there is that sense standing among the markers of those members of our congregation who have died.”
The rain reduced Sunday’s game, but soggy turnout, to about half its typical size, Troutman said.
The service began at the top of the hill at Oakwood, but about 25 minutes in the congregation processed to the section of the cemetery reserved for Moravian Church members – a section known as “God’s Acre.” As they walked the band, which had split into four separate groups, played antiphonally – one group playing a part, another group responding.
No ‘choirs’ in Oakwood
In many Moravian burial sites – although not at Oakwood – the members of the church are buried in what are called “choirs,” said Fort, the band director who’s a technical engineer at IBM during the week.
“By that I mean, single women are together, single men are together, married women are together, little boys, little girls, that kind of thing,” said Fort, a second-generation Moravian band director.
“The tradition is, these choirs have a song or a hymn associated with them,” Fort said. “As we move from one section to the other, those are the hymns we’re playing.”
Fort’s 23-year-old daughter, Kekka, an accounting major at N.C. State University, played flute in the band Sunday alongside her fiancé, Nate Klingerman, also 23, who came in from Charlotte for the weekend.
Kekka Fort said that, when she was a youngster, she never really got the notion of a graveyard being a scary place. “Growing up Moravian, we spend Easter in the graveyard,” she said. “And so, to me, graveyards are a happy place where you’re celebrating life.”
She admitted to being a bit daunted, though, at the prospect of rain ruining the pads on the keys of her flute on Sunday. That’s why she was one of the few band members who balanced an umbrella while playing and marching – especially challenging when flipping sheet music.
“I was trying to keep the flute dry,” she said. “I didn’t care if I got wet.”
Blessedly for all concerned, Sunday morning’s rain arguably wasn’t at its worst until shortly after the service ended. Then, if you will, the heavens opened up.