At Life's Last Threshold, Choir Brings Comfort At a hospice in Nashville, volunteers sing hymns and lullabies to the dying. They're part of a national organization that uses music to soothe life's final passage.
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At Life's Last Threshold, Choir Brings Comfort

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At Life's Last Threshold, Choir Brings Comfort

At Life's Last Threshold, Choir Brings Comfort

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Threshold Choir is unique. Its members sing only to people on the threshold of life, the dying. The first group started almost 15 years ago. Now there are Threshold Choirs all across the country. A new chapter in Nashville is recently begun recruiting singers. Emily Siner of member station WPLN sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALIVE HOSPICE)

TAMMY HEINSOHN: Knock knock. Hi. We are with the Threshold Choir. Would you like us to sing you some lullabies this evening?

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Tammy Heinsohn and two other women are going room to room at a hospice in Nashville. They wait at one doorway until 86-year-old Avis Moni tells them to come in. They walk to her bedside and start singing.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) You've been loved.

SINER: Moni has terminal colon cancer. She has been in hospice for about a week.

AVIS MONI: Lovely. So nice.

HEINSOHN: Would you like a hymn this evening?

SINER: Moni tries to sing-along.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) How sweet the sound, that saved the wretch like me.

SINER: Heinsohn is a 53-year-old event planner. She wanted to help hospice patients relax in the final moments of their lives just as she did with her own mother who died of kidney cancer 20 years ago.

HEINSOHN: I ended up singing to her at the bedside as she was dying. And then when I heard about Threshold Choir, that's when I got the chill up my spine. And I knew that, yes, singing was a critical component of the dying process.

LAURA BETH JEWELL: Music has the power to reach people on a deeper level than any type of verbalization or even sometimes touch can.

SINER: Laura Beth Jewell is a music therapist at Alive Hospice. That's where the Threshold Choir sings every week. She says music can bring back memories just like a smell can.

JEWELL: Whether the patient has dementia and can't remember his or her name or their daughter's name, they may remember the song that their mother used to sing to them as a child. Taking memories from your passed life and being able to experience them as you're dying is a wonderful thing.

SINER: Another member of the choir is Carolyn Wilson. Wilson is 43 and works in a day care. She'd already been singing to hospice patients on her own for several years before she discovered the Threshold Choir.

CAROLYN WILSON: As I was growing up, I went through foster care, through adoption, different just ups and downs in life. And music was just always such a healing for me and just has a way of breaking through whatever is going on, whatever the struggle is - the end of life or, you know, any other time of life too.

SINER: Wilson says it's more for fulfilling to sing with the group. But the work can also be emotionally challenging, and some people who've tried out the choir have left.

WILSON: You kind of have to sort of step out of yourself a little bit 'cause as a human, as a person, you see what these people are going through. And you definitely feel that.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) Like a ship in the harbor, like a mother and child.

SINER: The Nashville group now has three or four regular members. Some of the larger chapters have 20 or 30. When the choir was first founded, only women were allowed. The idea was that women had a special roll at death just as they did at birth. Francesca Wright is on the board of the National Threshold Choir, and she says even now, it's mostly women. And she says the reason the number of choirs is growing is because there's a shift in the way people view death.

FRANCESCA WRIGHT: We are not turning away from things that may have been scary or we may have been protected from. And we're recognizing, just like birth is so magical and wonderful, that death is also magical and wonderful in its own way.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) Ooh...

SINER: At Alive Hospice, Avis Moni has about a month left to live. For now, she is relaxed. She closes her eyes. Her breathing deepens. And by the third round of "Amazing Grace," she's asleep. For NPR news in Nashville, I'm Emily Siner.

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