Songs for the Dying

The Threshold Choir provides music and comfort for a particularly special audience.

threshold choir

Walking into a neonatal intensive care unit in Oakland, Margo Leslie prepared herself for what would come next. The pediatric chaplain had called her because a family she’d visited the day before had asked for her to return and sing again. She and a companion would perform bedside for a newborn baby, who was being taken off a ventilator and was expected to die later that day. The father met Leslie and her fellow singer at the entryway. Leslie remembers the mother speaking only a little English. The father took them into the room, where the mother sat in bed, holding the infant boy.

“We sang ‘Como Puerto Seguro,’ ‘Ángeles Andan,’ ‘Acércate Más,’ and ‘Invocamos la Luz,’ ” Leslie says. The mother listened quietly, absorbed in her child, occasionally smiling, and seemed at peace. The father was overcome with emotion. “He told us that his wife thought we sang like angels and that she loved and appreciated our singing.”

Leslie is a member of the Threshold Choir, whose East Bay chapter she joined in 2005 after an injury ended her 25-year career as a violinist, leading her to find another outlet for her musical talent. Since then, she has sung at the bedsides of dying or ill men, women, and children in homes, hospices, nursing facilities, and hospitals countless times. She says that each time, she tries to bring “a sense of holiness and love” and that “you have to release your own fears, if you have any.”

The Threshold Choir was founded in 2000 by Kate Munger when she and 14 other women gathered for the first time in El Cerrito, California. The choir formed East Bay and Marin chapters then; San Francisco and Sonoma chapters soon followed. Munger had discovered the redemptive power of singing 10 years earlier while caring for a friend stricken with AIDS. “I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him. I also found that I felt deeply comforted myself, which in turn was comforting to him,” she writes on the choir’s website.

Today, more than 2,800 choir members make up around 200 chapters across eight countries. They’re all volunteers, and the choir’s services are free. “We’re witnessing and celebrating the end of life,” Munger said in 2014.

Singing is perhaps as old as humanity itself, a way to express sacred, emotional matters.

Chapters range greatly in size, from just a handful of volunteers to as many as 40, and they hold regular rehearsals. New members, and new chapters, are welcomed and appreciated. Newcomers usually spend months learning the Threshold Choir songbook, which includes lyrics in different languages and songs from various faith traditions. When the choir is requested, usually two or three members are dispatched to deliver the comfort of song. Most visits last about 30 minutes. Sometimes caregivers and loved ones sing along, and the choir members do their best to honor requests.

Yolanda Sanchez-Peterson, a former member of the East Bay chapter, who is starting her own group in Bend, Oregon, recalls singing in Spanish for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. “On a great day, she could remember some of the lyrics by her favorite Mexican composer, Agustín Lara,” Sanchez-Peterson says. “On a good day, she’d grasp my hands tightly and express the rhythms of those songs as I sang them.”

The intimate presence of the Threshold Choir at the end of someone’s life is a rebuttal to attempts to sanitize sickness and death from the day-to-day world. Singing is perhaps as old as humanity itself, a way to express sacred, emotional matters. Song gives family members “permission to be authentic with their tears, their laughter, their sorrow, their grief,” Munger told Reader’s Digest. “We’re a death- and tear-phobic culture. We tend to make ourselves busy when we should sit down or pray or hold someone’s hand.”

That afternoon at the Oakland hospital, as the parents held their dying baby boy, Leslie and her fellow choir member sang heartfelt end-of-life lullabies. “A few days later the chaplain confirmed with me that the baby died not long after we left,” Leslie recalls.

The 500-entry Threshold Choir songbook includes the African American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

Perhaps Leslie and her companion had been the newborn’s band of angels. 

Elaine Lee is a San Francisco/Bay Area–based attorney and freelance writer.
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