The Threshold Choir builds bridges between life and death with song
by Kimi Eisele
On a Saturday morning in November, the Little Chapel of All Nations on the campus of the University of Arizona doubles as a rehearsal space for the Tucson Threshold Choir, one of nearly 200 choirs across the country who sing bedside for people at end of life.
When I arrive to observe, ten women are seated in a circle, and one of them quickly ushers me into the center, where a reclining lawn chair waits empty.
“We call it our ‘sacred lawn chair’,” says Jennie Boulet, one of the choir’s co-leaders.
“We always have someone sit here. It’s part of how we practice,” says Barbara Richardson, the other co-leader.
I’m offered a blanket and then I lean back and settle in. The singing is soft at first, women’s voices in unison. I close my eyes. I’m not dying, but I try to imagine for a moment that I am, that these are my last breaths. My heart quickens, a resistance. Can I receive this? I hear breath behind me: one of the singers, inhaling between notes. I remember to breathe. I focus on the sound around me. It is like a pond. I am floating amid gentle words and notes. You are not alone. You are loved.
In 1990, Kate Munger, a choral singer, visited a friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS. Sitting at his bedside, she felt distressed and scared by his condition, so she began to sing as a way to respond to the moment. “It helped me deal with my fear,” she says. “I’d known plenty of people who had died, but I hadn’t been there in person in the last days.”
Munger sang that day for over two hours, noticing the calming impact of the sound on both her friend and herself. The power she felt in those moments motivated her to keep singing for the dead and dying. While driving, when she saw animals on the side of the road that had been hit and killed by cars, she’d sing for them too.
Munger began to gather and write songs that could be sung to people at the threshold of death, and in 2000, she founded the first Threshold Choir in El Cerrito, California.
“Singing seems to be the really smart and appropriate and sacred thing to do to honor the moments at the end,” Munger says.
Vocal laments for the dead have a long and textured history. In Ancient Greece, for example, while a body was being washed and prepared for burial, women sang songs while pulling at their hair to show their grief to—and thus be judged favorably by—the deceased. These songs contained dramatic wails that only women, capable of hysteria, could produce—or so it was believed. (Tucson’s Threshold Choir is currently comprised of all women, but the choir is open to all genders.)
In Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland, “keening” was a form of vocal lament offered as part of funeral rituals until the middle of the 20th century. Keening contained long melodic phrases, emotionality, and melisma, in which a single syllable of text was sung in several notes.
In Egypt, China, and India, professional mourners were paid to express sorrow, deliver eulogies, or sing to support grieving families after a death in the family or community. And, of course, many modern funeral traditions often include singing and music, from the lively Second Line marching bands in New Orleans to singing hymns in church during services.
But singing to the dying and those who love them is far rarer.
One of the singers in Tucson’s choir is Leora Sapon-Shevin, who felt immediately called to join after seeing a video about the practice. A theater artist, Sapon-Shevin was interested in non-traditional performance, bringing artistic expression into spaces where it might otherwise not live—like in hospitals, she says.
After seeing the video, Sapon-Shevin visited a Threshold Choir in San Francisco where over 50 members had gathered to rehearse. “Hearing all those voices singing in three-part harmony, so attuned to each other, singing songs about letting go—I felt like, ‘This is what the presence of angels must feel like, a choir of angels.’ There was such loving intention.”
Joining a Threshold Choir also helped Sapon-Shevin come to terms with her own father’s death. During his illness, she and her father struggled to have conversations about what was happening, she says. “He was really scared.”
Sapon-Shevin mentions the “buzz of worry and activity and to-do lists” that often accompany the dying process for family members. “There’s all the busyness and the chores, and all the intense emotional stuff that’s happening. It’s this panic, because you can sort of feel something approaching and you feel so out of control.”
In those moments, it can be hard to be present for the person we love. For Sapon-Shevin, joining the choir allowed her “to do for others what I wish I’d been able to do for my own dad, but I couldn’t.”
Showing up to sing with compassion when you are outside of an immediate family carries a lot of power, Sapon-Shevin says. “Sometimes families seem confused or baffled as to why we would do this for strangers and want to give us food or money when we arrive at their house. Of course, we accept what they offer when we sense it’s important to them, but we do this because it is a huge honor to be a part of such an intimate moment. We don’t want them worrying about being good hosts on top of everything else.”
While singing, Sapon-Shevin says she can be a “gentle, loving presence, providing a container for people to sit with, sink into, and digest what is happening.”
Munger echoes this. “When we show up and sing, we give the family or the caregivers a new way to be attentive, to be empathetic and to be focused because so much of the time there’s a lot of scurrying about at the end of life,” she says.
Jennifer Rubin remembers being one of those family members when her younger sister was in hospice ten years ago in the Midwest. “One day a group of Threshold singers came and asked if we wanted them to sing. It was beautiful.” Some years later, after Rubin moved to Tucson, she joined Tucson’s Threshold Choir.
“It feels sacred. You feel privileged to be in the presence of patients and their families at such a profound time, supporting them with song,” Rubin says.
Before COVID, Tucson’s choir sang twice a month at Peppi’s House, the inpatient hospice program on the campus of the Tucson Medical Center. “We’d usually start singing in the hallways,” says Boulet. The staff would then check with patients to see who wanted the choir to visit. “We only go where invited,” she says.
The choir also sings in assisted living facilities and private homes. And while Tucson’s Choir has 16 members, only three or four of them at a time will sit bedside.
“We bring our portable stools and sing, because then we are at heart-level with the person we’re singing for,” Richardson says. “A lot of people moving through hospitals are often standing above the bedside. Sitting near them makes more sense for what we do.”
Long-time choir members observe varied responses from patients and their families. Sitting with others in their most vulnerable moments and taking cues from body language is a skill Threshold Choir members develop over time. Often, they can see the moment when patients, along with their family members, soften and relax.
Occasionally, family members might want the choir present but the person who is ill or dying does not. “You have to be careful. And watch. Sometimes the message is to leave,” Richardson says.
Boulet says it’s important not to not to overthink someone’s responses. “I think we need to be very careful about not falling into magical thinking. The truth is, a lot of people that at the end of life are very agitated, it’s physical. It’s nothing that we’re doing or not doing. It’s not about us. We just need to be mindful and observant.”
Sometimes people try to sing along, Richardson says. “We always say, ‘You don’t need to do anything. We’re just going to sing, you won’t know these songs, just rest and relax. But everyone is different. There’s no real pattern.”
The Threshold Choir repertoire contains over 500 songs, many with simple lyrics that can be repeated and lend themselves well to three-part harmony arrangements.
“The songs are easy, but they go deep,” Richardson says. Boulet calls them “lullabies at bedside.”
Most of the songs were written by choir members to address a situation they encountered during an end-of-life experience, Munger says. The song “You Are Not Alone,” for example, Munger wrote for someone who was feeling particularly isolated. She wrote it in choir’s eleventh year, she says, though “It should have been the first song I wrote.”
Another time, a choir tried to sing for “a very old woman who was dying and couldn’t take the focus on her. She was embarrassed,” Munger says. Afterwards, one of the choir members, Peggy Nes, wrote a song called “Arms of Grace.” When they returned to the woman’s bedside, they sang it to the woman’s family. “She was perfectly able to tolerate being sung to when the focus of the song was not on her,” Munger says.
Munger considers the repertoire a subset of folk music, music that comes out of lived experience. Early on, she presented the repertoire—then just 40 or 50 songs—to Pete Seeger, describing to him her vision. “I felt like I got his blessing,” she says, adding that she hopes someday the repertoire will be given to an organization like the Smithsonian Institution.
Songs sung by multiple voices in harmony carry a special power, Munger says. “When you sing a song, like, say, Amazing Grace, and the first time you sing in unison and then you break into harmony, there’s something physiological and spiritual that happens in that moment. Everybody feels it, you know? It usually involves shivers, goosebumps.”
In a choral sense, Munger believes it’s important that nobody be a soloist. “What we’re striving for is the blend of our voices, so it sounds like one voice. When you offer this genuinely in service, it transcends most kinds of singing and becomes elevated prayer.”
Choir members experience this when they themselves sit in the “sacred lawn chair.”
“It taps into a sense of vulnerability,” Richardson says.
Erin Galyen has been a member of the Tucson choir since 2007, the year it founded. When she sat in the center of the circle for the first time, she says, “I had what Kate Munger calls the ‘shiver.’ There is just sort of a heart resonance.”
When the singing is over, I get myself out of the lawn chair. I’m feeling a little rumpled and definitely very vulnerable. But I also feel whole and worthy. I belong here, in life, on the planet, in this moment.
Sapon-Shevin sees the Threshold experience as a kind of return to the beginning. “For many of us, having our eyes closed, having somebody conveying love to us and singing to us, is something that we haven’t experienced since we were babies or young children,” she says.
And while not everyone had this experience when young, the act of granting this love to someone at the end of life is a way of seeing them home, she says. “If death is being reabsorbed back into the fiber of the world that we came from, there’s this idea that it’s safe to surrender. You’re going to be held. You’re not alone.”
Learn more about the Threshold Choir and listen to some of the repertoire here: https://thresholdchoir.org/