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Swan Song

Vermont's hospice choruses deliver deathbed serenades


Published November 8, 2006 at 1:46 p.m.

At a recent Thursday night rehearsal in a meeting room at Christ Church Presbyterian, the Noyana Singers look like any other singing group. The 21 men and women of all ages sit in a circle. They carry black binders full of songs. They do warm-up exercises.

But when organizer Camilla Rockwell starts making announcements about upcoming performances, it's clear that this is a different kind of chorus. Everyone here already knows about some of the events - the Hospice Memorial Service at St. Paul's on November 12, for example. But Rockwell has a few new gigs to announce, and she's hoping at least some of the members can make it.

"I'm looking for singers who might be able to come for a relatively short sing tomorrow night," she tells them. This, she says, is "an urgent request." It's from a hospice nurse, who hopes a couple members of the group will be able to help calm her anxious patient. The woman is dying.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for the Noyana Singers; the group specializes in bringing songs of comfort to the sick and dying. Their name comes from a South African word meaning "we are going there." In this case, "there" is the end of life, and it's a place we're all headed eventually. Their singing helps patients, caregivers and the singers themselves cope with the pain associated with the end of the journey.

"Singing people over" is an ancient concept that has fallen out of favor in our youth-obsessed culture, but it's increasingly popular in Vermont. The area's first hospice chorus, Hallowell, formed in Brattleboro in 2003, and the group has spawned others in Middlebury, Montpelier, St. Johnsbury, and this one in Burlington, which formed in January.

Rockwell, 55, is a Burlington filmmaker who's currently making a documentary about hospice singing. She says that something about bringing music to people at this sensitive time just feels right. Listening to the rehearsal, it's easy to see why.

They first practice a folk song, "Love Call Me Home." "When the waters are deep," the singers croon, "friends carry me over. When I cry in my sleep, love call me home."

Their voices are so sweet and harmonious, it's almost impossible not to relax.

The singers, some of whom also belong to Vermont's a cappella Social Band, follow that number with a round of the vaguely spiritual "Long Time Sun." "May the long time sun shine upon you," they sing, "all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way home." Seems like a welcome message to hear at the end of life.

Angel Collins is the director of End of Life Services for the Visiting Nurses Association, which sponsors the volunteer chorus. She says their clients seem to be responding to it. "Anecdotally, I've heard how comforting it's been to patients who have requested it," Collins says.

Rockwell, who has participated in a number of deathbed sings, is even more enthusiastic. "People love it," she declares.

The svelte, expressive woman recalls a recent visit to a nursing home. "Some of the people lit up," she says. "One woman had no expression at all, but her foot was tapping along with the music."

Not that the singers are necessarily looking for a response. Rockwell stresses that the group is not giving concerts. "We're not performing for people," she asserts. "We don't expect people to open their eyes, or applaud or anything. They can just rest and take it in."

The group has never sung for anyone at the precise moment of death, what Rockwell calls "crossing over," but often recipients have only a few days, or even hours, to live. She says the group will sing different songs, depending on where a patient is in the process. A cheery hymn such as "Down to the Valley to Pray" might be more appropriate for someone who is more alert and aware. A meditative chant in Latin is probably a better choice when the recipient is on the verge of death.

"As someone gets closer and closer and closer," Rockwell gently explains, "you want to be careful about singing things that are going to bring them back to earth." At some point, she says, "You have to ask, do you want to be calling up memories for someone, or do you want to be helping them let go of the memories and let go of their bodies?"

But even at that stage, she says, you can see the effect the music has on patients. It often causes a change of breathing, a softening of the muscles in the face.

Rockwell has experienced these things herself; at the end of every rehearsal, one chorus member lies on a couch while the group gathers around and sings. She confirms that having this singing directed at you "has a powerful effect on your nervous system."

Not surprisingly, the music also has an effect on the others in the room. Hallowell founder Kathy Leo says the music is transformative, for reasons she finds difficult to describe. When Hallowell does a deathbed sing, caregivers and family members tend to become emotional. She says this can be liberating, especially for people who bottle up feelings and have difficulty expressing their grief.

"People just start crying," Leo says. "The singing, the sound, creates this moment for the grief to just rest. Somehow the songs allow that, because the music moves people so deeply. It's a lovely thing. It has never felt wrong."

Leo doesn't like to take credit for starting the hospice chorus movement in Vermont. She calls herself Hallowell's "midwife," and explains that she stumbled upon the idea while tending to a patient as a hospice volunteer. The woman was a member of the Guilford Community Church; in her final days, the church choir came to sing for her. Leo was so moved, she worked with her local hospice organization to start their own non-denominational chorus. Today the group has 40 members, and recently released its first CD, appropriately entitled angels hovering round.

Though Leo came to the group with hospice experience, many of the members joined without previous training. So she designed an orientation for them that includes "a crash course" in hospice philosophy, and a discussion about how to deal with their own emotions. People who join the other hospice choruses undergo similar training.

Singing for the dying is intense. "It's absolutely a grace in all of our lives to be invited into these sacred spaces," Leo offers, adding that she often feels "close to ecstatic" when she leaves a bedside sing. "You feel so fully alive having been exposed to these deep emotions."

But that feeling arises from being in proximity to death, and it can be scary. "You get very close to the edge, whatever that means to people," Leo says. "It's a place that's full of mystery and wonder."

And it's a place that she, Rockwell and other deathbed-singing advocates wish more people understood. That's one of the things they most appreciate about the chorus - that the music provides an opportunity for everyone involved to talk about death and about their conflicting emotions as they encounter it.

This is what inspired Rockwell to make her film, entitled Holding Our Own: Reclaiming the End of Life. The documentary will explore this transitional time by focusing on Hallowell, and on the art of Vermonter Deidre Scherer, who creates elegant fabric collages of, mostly, elderly faces and deathbed scenes (see sidebar). Rockwell, who worked for years with documentarian Ken Burns, hopes to finish the film next spring, with eventual distribution to medical schools and community groups.

She wants to use art and music to "give people a language to be able to have discussions about death," and to spread the concept of hospice choruses beyond Vermont. In the meantime, Rockwell, Leo and the other hospice singers will continue taking requests from people who won't likely live to see that happen.