Life Matters Media
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Kindness Made Audible: Threshold Choir Comforts Patients Nearing Death

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmeia.org

A growing movement is bringing peace and love to dying hospice patients across the globe.

Threshold Choir boasts more than 240 groups with about 2,700 volunteers across North America, Europe and Asia. The nonprofit offers free beside vigils for men and women nearing death.

“We’re death– and tear-phobic in our culture,” founder Kate Munger recently told Reader’s Digest. “We tend to make ourselves busy when we should sit down or pray or hold someone’s hand.”

When invited to a bedside, a choir of volunteers select from a repertoire of about 300 short, non-religious songs, many written by Munger and other dedicated singers. Sometimes the patient and his or her loved ones suggest songs.

The goal: to usher in a sense of tranquility with each 20 minute session.

“We’re trying to re-create the distance between a mother’s mouth and a baby’s ear,” Munger told the magazine.

The “seed” for Threshold Choir was planted in 1990 when Munger sang for a close friend dying of complications associated with HIV/AIDS.

“I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside,” Munger writes on the organization’s website. “I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. I sang it for two-and-a-half hours. It comforted me, which comforted him. The contrast between the morning and the afternoon was profound. I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him.”

Fast forward to 1999, when Munger purchased her first computer and began reaching out to others with a passion for compassion. The first Threshold Choir gathering was held in 2000, and chapters soon began sprouting across the San Francisco Bay area.

By 2012, there were hundreds of chapters worldwide. More than three dozen chapters have opened in the last two years. Although she no longer leads the organization, Munger remains deeply involved in the operation. The group received nonprofit status 10 years ago.

Threshold Choir board member and former chair Katherine Rose Kirner told Life Matters Media singing for the seriously ill and aged is almost indescribable.

Rose Kirner said she’s sang at the bedside more than 800 times.

“It’s such an incredible exchange and connection,” she said. “To be of service to them, it’s very meaningful. The human voice is a really amazing tool. You know a cello, while that’s lovely, it’s not the same to have someone singing to you.”

Rose Kirner said at least one person present during a bedside vigil cries 100 percent of the time.

“It touches them in a way they don’t expect,” she said. “I think the family members love it. The way I identify they love it is that they cry.”

Rose Kirner said for far too long death and dying has been a “taboo subject.” However, because the hospice movement is growing and more Americans are caring for aging relatives, she said the culture is becoming more accepting of it.

“Think of the aging population and their family members,” she said.

Heather Larson Poyner is helping nurture a chapter in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She refers to such demonstrations as “sacred singing.”

The veteran newspaper reporter, musician and hospice volunteer said there’s a growing need for such services. The 18-member group visited Siena On The Lake in Racine, Wisconsin, in August.

“We sang for a man who is actively dying,” Larson Poyner recalled. ”Six or seven of us sang for him. He opened his eyes and looked at us. We made a special connection with the man who was transitioning. It really reaffirmed what our mission is. We bring comfort to someone who can’t even speak with us. It’s an interesting connection.”

– Kenosha Lighthouse Threshold Choir photo