Cedar Rapids organist pulls out all the stops to help grieving families

Karmen Shedenhelm has played at Cedar Memorial funerals since 1965

Karmen Shedenhelm has been playing organ for funerals for more than 50 years. Photographed at Cedar Memorial’s chapel in Cedar Rapids, where she also plays the clavinova, on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Karmen Shedenhelm has been playing organ for funerals for more than 50 years. Photographed at Cedar Memorial’s chapel in Cedar Rapids, where she also plays the clavinova, on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Karmen Shedenhelm doesn’t remember exactly when she started playing organ for Cedar Memorial.

“In those days, you didn’t fill out an application,” the 77-year-old Cedar Rapids native said. “I was hired by word-of-mouth. They asked me if I’d like a job and I’ve been there ever since. I honestly don’t know the exact date.”

Shedenhelm estimates she was hired sometime around 1965, meaning she has been playing for funerals for more than 50 years. While the number of funerals she plays from month to month varies, Shedenhelm said she’s played for thousands of funerals.

“I’ve been very blessed to have a job I really like,” she said. “I have always hoped I’ve helped grieving families through music, which I think is a universal way to help people.”

Shedenhelm said she took piano lessons when she was “quite young” and planned to go into elementary music education after she attended Coe College as a music major. She played her first funeral at the now-closed Rohn’s Funeral Home, a gig she got because she was an organist at Eden United Church of Christ, a position she also had for 50 years.

Shedenhelm said she’s also played weddings, funerals and other special services for other churches in the area. Recently, she’s been playing for Quilts of Valor, a program sponsored by Cedar Memorial that gives quilts to veterans.

There was a time, after Cedar Memorial acquired Turner’s Funeral Home, that Shedenhelm could play funerals at Cedar Memorial and Turner’s east and west locations all on the same day, sometimes racing from place to place.

“I never got a speeding ticket,” she jokes.

Nowadays, such a feat wouldn’t be possible, Shedenhelm said. Funeral services were once only about 30 minutes, but are now more personalized and tend to go longer, she said.

That’s not all that has changed.

“Funeral services, as well as the music, have changed a lot through the years,” Shedenhelm said. “In the earlier years, it was much more traditional music, it was hymns. Now, it’s more contemporary and personalized with families doing videos and hymns.”

Still, there always seems to be a need for Shedenhelm’s services, said C. John Linge, president of Cedar Memorial.

“There’s just something about live music,” Linge said. “There’s just something about live music that’s played from her heart.”

Linge, who has worked with Shedenhelm since 1985, called her “a rock” for Cedar Memorial.

“Music is so therapeutic,” he said. “She has personally worked with families in assisting them in creating a memorable music tribute.”

After more than five decades of playing in the community, Shedenhelm said she still considers herself lucky.

“‘Faith, family and friends’ really sums up my life,” she said. “I feel very blessed.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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