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Music and the Process of Dying

I am currently undertaking a research programme looking at the use of music during the dying process. There is a wealth of research to support the therapeutic benefits of sound for health and well-being but very little which examines the effects of music and sound as a person is in the last stages of life. My own work in care homes and hospices has shown that people do respond to music when death is close and I would like to establish how widespread this practice is. My research will compare the principles, teaching and practice of ‘Music Thanatology’, as it is known in the US with current practice here in the UK.

My preliminary survey suggests that Music Thanatology, pioneered in the US by harpist and singer Therese Schroeder-Sheker over 30 years ago is a well established practice. The teaching programme called ‘The Chalice of Repose’ offers instruction in the use of the harp and voice during a ‘vigil’ for the dying person. Qualified Music Thanatologists can now be found in hospices, hospitals and care homes all over America. In this country there is no obvious parallel. The work done by Soul Midwives – a movement started by Felicity Warner - does incorporate an element of music but it is not the primary tool of the practitioner. Furthermore, the use of music for people dying in hospices in the UK seems to be far less common than in the US. I have only anecdotal evidence at this stage but I aim to conduct a far more systematic survey over the coming months which will provide a more accurate picture of the situation.

The main research questions therefore will be:

  1.  What are the principles which underpin the Chalice of Repose project and the work of The Federation of Soul Midwives?

  2.  What are the principles which underpin any other teaching individual or organisation which may come to light as the research progresses?

  3.  What are the benefits of this practice? For whom?

  4.  How widespread is the practice?

  5.  What are the sonic properties of the harp and why is it considered particularly suitable for this work?

In order to answer these questions I would be most interested to hear from anyone who is teaching or practising in this field. In particular I am anxious to establish what teaching is available in the UK for people wishing to work in this highly specialised area. Clearly, many skills besides musical competence are required, such as respect for a range of belief systems, sensitivity to family needs and regard for ethical considerations amongst others.

One can only speculate as to the fears, anxieties and pain which may be experienced by someone with only hours to live and it seems to me that if there is a way in which these can be alleviated then this should be made available. At this stage in a person’s life, depending on the individual’s belief system then it may be of immense comfort to be able to ‘let go’ of past griefs, bitterness or fears. Music or sound is often cited as a powerful means by which this can happen, thereby allowing for a ‘blessed death’ – as described by Therese Schroeder-Sheker in her initial article.

It is highly likely that most people (certainly those living in the UK) will never have heard of Music Thanatology or be aware that the services of Soul Midwives are on offer. By undertaking this research and highlighting the valuable work done by practitioners it is to be hoped that it will begin to reach a wider audience.

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