Music for the Dying

When Elaine Stratton Hild was eighteen, she volunteered to play her viola at a local hospital. On her first day, a nurse asked her to go to the room of a woman who wanted to hear “Amazing Grace.” She found the woman alone, but closing her eyes and allowing the music to wash gently over them both, Stratton Hild played the song. When she opened her eyes, she saw that the woman had turned toward the window and stopped breathing. She had died with the sound of “Amazing Grace” in her ears.

More recently, Dr. Stratton Hild (PhD in musicology) has been engaged in a fascinating study of plainsong chants that different communities would sing to dying persons in the Middle Ages. There were entire liturgies to comfort the dying. The presupposition was that the whole community of friends and family would accompany the dying person on their journey through death and beyond. No one, it was assumed, should have to die alone. And no one should die without the support of the community of believers who would care for both their bodily requirements and their emotional and spiritual needs.

Medieval people were not alone in this conviction. Many cultures have developed practices to help “accompany” the dying both physically and spiritually. A mother of three children who had for a time been a novice with a religious community mentioned that, when a certain bell sounded in that community, everyone would leave whatever they were doing to come to the room of the dying sister. The entire community (spilling out into the hallway) would then sing a chant while the person died.

Most of us in the modern secularized world have, it seems, forgotten how to deal with the dying. Our tendency is to lock the dying person away in a room so that no one can see this “failure” of our modern technology.

. . .

The Church, I am now convinced, should offer its help and the consoling presence of the Body of Christ not only in burial, but throughout the entire process of dying. And by “the Church,” I don’t just mean clerics.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of priests and nuns. I can think of few things more comforting in the hospital than seeing a nurse who is also a religious sister in her habit. Catholics used to see that all the time. We never do anymore. (Why?) But priests and nuns cannot do everything; they cannot do what only a community can do. And we should not presume to “off-load” this work on them out of our sight the way we have off-loaded it onto doctors and nurses.

The one thing every dying person I’ve known has wanted is to die at home. Not one of them did. And in a hospital, the likelihood of a person getting music, chant, a communal liturgy, or the simple presence of friends and family around-the-clock, is nearly non-existent.

We have allowed ourselves to be atomized by modern culture into little separate units. And when we do that, we have no power against the institutions that promise to care for us, but which are increasingly threatening us. The medical community has an invaluable role to play in treating the dying, but it is only a part. No one should have to die alone, in the hospital, far from home.

Music for the Dying

 


Coda: Elaine Stratton Hild studies Medieval chants for the sick and dying

 

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