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Threshold Choirs

By Linda Banks

I sat with my aunt the night she passed away.  She was asleep, but it was a fitful sleep - she tossed and turned and moaned. Out of the blue, I started singing to her, an old gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away.”  I didn’t know all the words, and ended up humming most of it:

Some bright morning when this life is over
I'll fly away
To that home on God's celestial shore
I'll fly away

I'll fly away oh glory
I'll fly away
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away

It felt natural to sing to her, and the effect was comforting to both of us.  I watched as her breathing calmed, and she visibly relaxed while I sang and hummed. 

When I shared my story with a friend, Kathy, at work, she confided that she is a threshold singer, part of a choir that sings at the bedside for those who are dying. Kathy sings with the Moon Over Mountains Threshold Choir, (MOMTC), one of the two threshold choirs in Boulder.  There are eight chapters in Colorado, part of a national organization, founded by Kate Munger of California in 2002, to provide comfort to the dying.  There are hundreds of threshold choirs in over thirty states and England.

While some threshold singers are professional musicians, the majority are not.   Choirs are made up of people from all walks of life -- people who like to sing or spiritual people wanting to be closer to the death experience.  Kathy said she heard of the organization through friends in her sangha Buddhist monastic order, who sing with the Boulder choir. “I was drawn to be a threshold singer from a desire to assist people in this transition. Decades ago, I was a midwife, assisting in home births. Now I want to midwife to the dying.”

The MOMTC has twelve choir members. It is associated with a hospice who contacts them when needed and when a request has been made by the family.  They sing in hospitals, nursing homes, private homes and hospice facilities.  The choirs usually sing for twenty to thirty minutes, but may sing longer if the family requests, and if the dying person appears to be benefiting. 

Songs range from traditional gospel tunes, favorite songs of the dying, or special songs written for threshold choirs.  “We also sing songs our voice instructor taught us -- Appalachian songs, African songs, Latin hymns, Sufi songs,” Kathy says.  “We try to learn songs from all over the world.”  The songs are very simple, sung in 3-part harmony, a cappella.    

“We recently sang to a man who, along with his wife, was active in their church choir.  They sang with us.  We planned on learning some of his choir songs so he could sing them with us, but he died too soon.”  Kathy said that they develop relationships with dying patients and their families. They have sung at the bedside of patients several times before their passing.  The choir has also been invited to sing at memorial services.

There is no fee to families and all singers are volunteers.  The singers go only where welcomed by a family.   “We have been described as angels many times,” Kathy says.  “Everyone has been extremely appreciative.   Our intention is to be there as much for the family as for the dying person.”  

For more information on the work of the Threshold Choirs, or to support their cause, visit www.thresholdchoir.org.

Here is a video of a choir from Charlottesville, NC.

Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother died suddenly last year, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day.

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