Songs for 
the dying

07/12/2012

While most of us sing lullabies to soothe our children’s cries or help them sleep, one woman is singing to the ears of the dying—along with hundreds of others she has trained around the world.

“Watching and waiting by that beautiful gate, it’s welcoming door opens just for you, you can’t arrive early and you can’t arrive late,” sings Kate Munger, founder of Threshold Choir, a nonprofit dedicated to singing to people on the verge of death and their bereaved families. In groups of two to four, members of the Threshold Choir congregate around the beds of the fatally ill, singing short, soft and looping lyrics. Songs are sung in both unison and harmony; often the dying or their family members join in.

“Through all of it, I’ve felt that this was work that I was uniquely meant to do,” Ms. Munger, an Inverness resident, said. “Everything I’ve done in my life has been preparing me for it. It’s never been hard, but it’s always been intense.”

Though she has used her voice to soothe nearly 1,000 dying individuals, Ms. Munger hasn’t always been calm in the face of death. Her first encounter came in 1990. “I spent a day filling in a volunteer [hospice] spot for a friend who was dying of AIDS. All morning I did chores and in the afternoon I was supposed to sit by his bedside. I was terrified,” she recalled. Though in a coma, the man appeared agitated. Ms. Munger, who often sang in choirs as a hobby, decided to sing a song that, at the time, gave her courage.

She sang for him for two and a half hours. “At the end of that time I realized I had given him and myself something very powerful—something we could share,” she said.

It was after that experience that Ms. Munger, then a masseuse and West Marin School bus driver, knew her true calling. She become a professional singing teacher soon after, and, years later, while driving home from Montana, Ms. Munger came across animals injured from passing vehicles. She turned off her radio and sung for each one that she passed. She described the moment as the icing on the cake.

Using the vast connections she had made through the vocalist world she created Threshold Choir, and simultaneously established Marin County and East Bay choirs.

Participants spend six months training—memorizing 30 core songs from an official repertoire of 400 songs and becoming comfortable with death—before performing at bedside, Ms. Munger said. The singing style, which is soft like a lullaby, can also be difficult to master. “It takes a lot of vocal strength to sing softly [and] with control,” she said.

At most rehearsals, choir members take turns sitting in a reclining chair to simulate the feeling of lying in a hospital bed, while being sung to by two others.

Threshold’s songs feature English, Spanish, Swedish, Swahili, Thai, Indonesian, German, Japanese, Chinese and Hebrew lyrics. Though they might seem religious to some, the choir is ecumenical and interfaith, serving people of any belief system.

“We’re deeply rooted in the spiritual but not necessarily religious,” Ms. Munger said. “Our songs talk about love and light but not necessarily the G word or the J word.” Some of Threshold Choir’s songs can be found on their two albums of original music. Half of the songs in their repertoire were written by the choir’s members, while friends contributed the other half.

Though the choir bases its work around the dying, its members are hardly ever present during death. “We don’t have a goal to be there at the moment they die. We want to be there before they die and if they need us after they die, but they often pass when no one’s in the room,” Ms. Munger said.

The groups perform at hospitals or funerals, but more often in private homes. “Now more and more, people are keeping their loved ones home for an extended time before burial. Part of our mission is to help people grieve,” Ms. Munger said.

Though the dying are the choir’s main clientele, Threshold also sings for the recovering. “We don’t say no to requests. If people ask us to come sing, we go,” Jann Powell, a member of the Marin County Threshold Choir who found the organization after witnessing a funeral performance, said.

Every week, Ms. Powell and her group sing at Kentfield Rehabilitation and Specialty Hospital. While there is no proof that singing or being sung to helps recovery, Reverend Betsy Rosen, who handpicks patients who she feels would enjoy the service, believes she can see a difference. “The weak, the lonely—[everyone] responds well to the positivity,” she said. “[Threshold Choir is] very subtle, very discreet, and very loving.”

Ms. Powell has seen the regenerative effects in a client that she has been singing to for the last two years.

When she first saw him, the man was sitting slumped over in his wheelchair, mumbling. “Over time we came to know a bit more about him and that he used to be an umpire,” Ms. Powell said. “So we sang him ‘Take me out to the ball game.’” “Did you like that?” she asked him. “I dunno,” he answered.

Ms. Powell soon found that those were the only words he could say; the man had suffered a traumatic brain injury. “He wasn’t supposed to talk or walk ever again,” Ms. Powell said. The man and his wife used to sing for the Sonoma Choir, so when visiting her husband during Threshold’s services, naturally she’d join in, holding the choir book in front of him and pointing to the notes as she sang along.

“Gradually he began to sing with us,” Ms. Powell said. The patient progressed so much that he could soon tell if his wife was lagging behind. “‘We’re singing 240 now!’ he would say, whacking his wife on the arm.”

“He’s memorized some of our songs now,” Mrs. Powell continued. “He doesn’t need [to see] the words for them. One time we were singing outside of the room for another client, and his wife wheeled him out. He sang with us.”

Ms. Munger will speak about the mission of Threshold Choir from 2 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 18, at Commonweal in Bolinas. The event, titled “Making Kindness Audible through the Gift of Song,” is part of a free End of Life Conversation Series. For more information go to the-new-school.org.