She played “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the organ at a cremation.

A man killed his wife, then shot himself in the head. Relatives requested an organ rendition of “My Way” at the double funeral. They said it was his favorite song.

She bellowed a cattle call at the funeral of an old farmer, and she cheered on the relatives of a deceased high school football coach with the Oak Park fighting song.

Martha Garvin, who is 52, earns her living entertaining at celebrations of life and death. She has played the organ and sung at weddings and funerals for 23 years–400 events a year.

“When I’m doing some of these things, I try not to make fun of the people, even though sometimes it gets hilarious. But it’s not my job to get judgmental. I just do what they tell me,” she says. “The songs mean a lot to people–it was their relative’s favorite or had some major significance in the person’s life. Often they don’t see the irony in the requests. So I accept it. I feel like I’m contributing by helping them through this dark time.”

Every few weeks Garvin does an unusual wedding or funeral. At one gypsy funeral, where it’s the custom to celebrate the relative’s passing on to a new life, the mourners rolled the casket into the middle of the room and danced around it. They passed jugs of wine and asked Garvin to join them. She did.

“Shall We Gather at the River” was the main song at another funeral, because relatives said the man loved to fish.

Once she inadvertently spent several hours in the dusty attic of a funeral home, where she played the organ for the services below. The undertaker had shoved up the pull-down staircase, the only access, before the service started. After she played the postlude, she realized he had forgotten about her. “So I began to yell. I got on my hands and knees and pushed as hard as I could, but the stairs wouldn’t budge. Then I sat on the floor and pushed with my feet, and the stairs moved halfway down. I turned to throw down the stairs and got caught on the wall. The undertaker finally heard me yelling and straightened the stairs.”

One wedding really shocked Garvin. She had to sing and play “Something Good” from The Sound of Music while the bride came down the aisle lip-synching. “You should always honor the family’s requests, no matter how odd,” says Rosemary Kosik, Garvin’s boss.

Kosik, who employs several other people to do the same kind of work, hired Garvin after Garvin’s mother bragged about how good her daughter was on the piano. She had started piano lessons when she was six years old. “I just love music, and could just hear songs and go play them. It just came to me,” Garvin says. At 14 she was the pianist at her father’s church in Hannibal, Missouri. She received a bachelor’s degree in music education, and then taught for a while in the Maywood school district. For 30 years she has also been a pianist at the Church of the Nazarene in Oak Park.

“I always knew I would be involved in some aspect of music, but I never thought it would be like this,” she says. For weddings and funerals she can sing hundreds of religious and secular songs by heart, and she can play anything by ear. She can sing German, Polish, Slovak, Italian, Bohemian, English, and Spanish songs on request. If there are no requests, she sets the tone.

She even plays songs she has only heard over the telephone. “A wealthy Chicago publisher died, and his favorite song was ‘Minnie the Mermaid.’ I found out it was recorded in 1923 and was put out by the Firehouse Five Plus Two. A fireman played it for me over the phone, and I wrote it out.

“It went like this: ‘Oh what a time I had with Minnie the Mermaid down under the sea.’ I got to the funeral, and the widow asked to see the music–and said it wasn’t quite how her late husband sang the tune.”

The widow told her how it went, and Garvin sang, “I lost my morals under the corals. Oh, what a time I had with Minnie.”

The widow walked up to Garvin after the service and said, “Oh, Charlie would have loved it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus.