To Die with a Song in My Heart
How deathbed singers infuse comfort and a sense of the sacred to the dying
Several years ago, I stayed with my sister for about a week after her husband, Herb, had been moved to a hospice setting. Herb had an incurable brain tumor and was near death. One of the most beautiful things I witnessed at hospice was a group of young people standing around Herb’s bed singing some of his favorite selections from Handel’s “Messiah.” I still get tears in my eyes as I think about the beauty of this moment. In fact, this is what I remember most about Herb’s last moments on earth.
I asked my sister about why she had arranged for the singers to come to hospice. She said that Herb had indicated to her that he could no longer understand most of what people were saying to him, but that he could understand music perfectly.
Since then, intrigued by the power of singing to bring comfort to the dying and a sense of the sacred to our experience of death, I did some reading about “deathbed singers.” In my brother-in-law’s case, the singers were students from the university where my sister was on the faculty. In other instances, choirs are specifically trained to serve as deathbed singers. They are sometimes called “threshold choirs.”
While deathbed singing is still somewhat new and unique in American society, it goes back many years in some other cultures. French Benedictine monks, for example, were using Gregorian chants in the Middle Ages to bring comfort to the dying. In some Hindu and Buddhist societies, the practice of singing hymns and chanting mantras near the dying also has a long history and, in some places, continues today.
The idea of deathbed singing is growing in popularity in different places around the world. There are now at least 100 threshold choir chapters across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Threshold choirs generally consist of volunteers who participate in regular rehearsals and training sessions on how to best provide a soothing presence for people who are dying and their families.
Deathbed singing is based on the understanding that music can bring comfort to both the dying and the loved ones left behind. Music, as Herb indicated, can take us to places where words alone prove inadequate. Deathbed singing is also based on the understanding that dying can be a sacred event. Music honors and gives expression to this sacredness.
The term “sacred dying” is used by Dr. Megory Anderson in her work on death and dying. Anderson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Sacred Dying Foundation (SDF) and the author of the book, Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life. Anderson refers to death—not as a failure or embarrassment—but as a transition, a mysterious process, and something that is as natural as birth. One of the end-of-life rituals she describes in her book is deathbed singing.
Several months ago, I started a new spiritual practice of beginning each day reflecting on what is in my heart. I write the words “My heart is . . .” and then, after some reflection, complete the sentence by describing what I am feeling at the time. Here are some examples of what I recently wrote: My heart is grateful. My heart is concerned. My heart is troubled. My heart is full of joy.
I’m not sure how I will be feeling—or what will be in my heart—when I come to die, but I hope it won’t be resentment, regret, fear, or anger. Perhaps there will be people around me who can help me ward off such feelings and bring me to a place of peace. Perhaps they will do so by singing. I would like that, as a song is one of the best things I can think of to have in my heart as I die.