Singing hope at the homegoing

Throughout the pandemic, funeral singer Shelia Oden has used her voice to comfort mourners at hundreds of Detroit funerals.

Funeral singer Shelia Oden. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph

Shelia Oden is a joy giver, with a laugh that bounces from the depths of her belly to tag your smiling cheeks. Twenty months into the pandemic, she still carries that lightness as she sings day in and day out to the mourning masses who have lost loved ones. 

If you’ve attended a homegoing at the Northwest Chapel of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals any year since 2012, she’s likely sung to you. Before the pandemic, she sang at up to 13 services each week. Since spring of 2020, that number has climbed to more than 20 a week, or four to five services daily.

On a day like that, services adhere to a strict schedule, beginning at 9 a.m. and again every two hours thereafter until 5:30 p.m. Even for a full-time musician like Oden, who has been singing since the age of two, playing piano since the age of 4 and earning her way in music since she was 7 years old, it’s a lot.

At each service, Oden sings “God Is,” a gospel staple that is traditionally sung with a full choir, as funeral directors close the casket. 

“I sing that song because it ministers to people during that most difficult period of time they’re having in their life,” she said. “They’re sitting and feeling, ‘I need God right now.’” 

“I Know” from the recording “Mighty Voices Live: I Shall Rejoice,” written and performed by Shelia Oden (organ and lead vocals) with the Second Canaan Baptist Church Choir. Hear more of Oden’s singing here and here.

Over the years, it has been her honor to have coworkers request that she sing “God Is” at funerals when they’re the ones seated on the front row, at a homegoing for a parent or close loved one. 

As the soloist and musician for each service, Oden is an integral part of the homegoing celebration. Music at a funeral punctuates the service. It positions mourners for the tone of the homegoing sendoff, maintaining solemnity during deeply reflective parts of the service, and sharply lifting spirits to encourage people in deep grief. 

She sings, plays piano throughout and at the conclusion, sanitizes the chapel’s podiums and mic system. That leaves just a few minutes between each service to rest and prepare for the next one. 

Oden, a stroke survivor, also sings and plays at three different churches every month.

When asked how she does it, she simply said, “By the grace of God.” “Do you know how many musicians there are in the city of Detroit?” she asked. “The Lord could have used anyone.”

Oden’s ear and skill were trained up in the Baptist church, where she sang and played alongside her mother and sister. Growing up, she also took private lessons to learn to read music and gain an understanding of music theory. Later, she took courses in Wayne State University’s music program, though she finished undergraduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Detroit College of Business (now Davenport University).

Though music is her passion, she opted for a business degree because of her mother’s example. 

“My mother believed that you could do music, but you still had to have a backup. She worked at Detroit Edison and did music, my sister worked at the post office for forty years and still did music, and I retired from the city before getting into music full-time.”

shelia oden playing organ at plymouth ucc
Shelia Oden. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph

Physically, Oden maintains her voice by taking care of her body. She eats more nutritious foods than not, drinks lots of water, swears by 8 hours of sleep and takes a vigorous vitamin regimen to keep her immune system shored up. (Her secret vitamin for keeping the vocal chords clear: apple cider vinegar gummies.)

But emotionally, she said, the work is really only possible because the job is one she’s been called to do. “The Lord is doing a different thing in me…putting me to work on a more personal level [with people],” she said.

When you hear Oden sing, it feels like she’s handpicked songs specifically for you, even as she uses her voice to reach large crowds. 

“People always ask me, ‘Why are you singing so hard; why you sing like that?’ And I just carry with me that it doesn’t matter how many people are in that audience,” she said. “If you minister to five or you minister to 50,000; you minister to those five people the same way that you do to 50,000 because you don’t know who you’re going to bless, who you’re going to touch.”

During the pandemic, there have been plenty of funeral services when there were only a few people in the chapel, particularly during the months when state restrictions only allowed 10 people to be present.

But Oden sings full out every time and plays the organ by “what she feels, allowing the Lord to give her what to do,” following the advice of one of her musical mentors. Carol Cole (no relation to the directors of the funeral home) played the organ for years and was an inspiration to Oden growing up. Cole stood out as a woman organist who played with prominent male gospel composers throughout the city, including on their album recordings. 

In fact, it was a chance conversation with Cole herself after a service that placed Oden in position for the role she holds now at James H. Cole. She didn’t imagine it would lead to her becoming an essential worker, but she’s sure she wouldn’t give up her work at the funeral home.

“Whatever the reason is, the Lord has given me so much to be able to minister, and then given me the capability to be able to get up every day and to do what I do. And I love what I do.”

Outside of her work at James H. Cole Home for Funerals, Oden is a member of several choirs and chorales, though they are not currently in concert due to the pandemic. You can still hear her sing almost every Sunday via livestream at two churches, Plymouth United Church of Christ and Vernon Chapel AME. Both congregations continue to hold virtual services. Plymouth’s services begin at 8:30 a.m., and Vernon Chapel’s begin at 10:30 a.m. 

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.