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Threshold Choir sings to people on their deathbed

Savor the sounds of a song bath
Kyle Norris/Michigan Radio

Here’s how the Threshold Choir works. Typically, Hospice or a family member call ups the choir when someone is sick or dying. A small group of singers arrive at the person’s bedside and sing very simple songs with lyrics like “You are not alone, I am here beside you.”

Choir members say it’s not a performance but rather a way to be present with someone who’s dying.

Their friends tease them that singing to people on their deathbed must be depressing. But the singers say it’s energizing and life-affirming. They say it’s the opposite of depressing.

There are more than one-hundred Threshold Choirs around the world.  In Michigan there are chapters in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Detroit and others forming in Kalamazoo and Marquette.

A woman named Kate Munger created the first group in 1990 in California. She sang at the bedside of her friend who was dying from complications with AIDS. She realized how much the singing calmed both of them down.

Tammy Renner is the founding director of the Ann Arbor Threshold Choir. She says the singers are trying to imitate a mother holding her child and singing a lullaby. “That’s what we want someone to feel, that ever-gentle loving presence.”

Choir members come into this “space of dying” willingly, even though that’s a space that terrifies many, and they give the gift of music. That’s what Diane Smith says. She’s the Spiritual Care Coordinator with Arbor Hospice. She says that can provide a new way of looking at death and dying.

“Family members who are around it see a new vision of what death can be. The music can become this loving, peaceful experience that people don’t imagine death can be.”

Smith says the singers help create that environment and the music becomes a kind of presence.

“Well let’s say I put on my theological hat, and I suggest that with this music comes a presence. I won’t name it because for many different people the name would be different, but the presence of some spirit, something beyond what’s happening physically or tangibly in the room is going on.”

She says the music brings everyone into the same space in the exact same way that music brings people together to dance.

She’s seen the Threshold Choir’s singing instantly calm people down. Like a patient who was non-verbal with her eyes wide-open who slowly fell asleep to the singing. Or bickering family members who become quiet or start crying once the singing begins.  

And I missed this detail until someone pointed it out. The group's mission statement proclaims: "Our mission is to sing for and with those at the thresholds of life." Thus, the name "Threshold Choir."

For more information on the Threshold Choir visit their website here.

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