Music for the Dying

When Elaine Stratton Hild was eighteen, she volunteered to play her viola at a local hospital.  On her first day, a nurse asked her to go to the room of a woman who wanted to hear “Amazing Grace.”  She found the woman alone, but closing her eyes and allowing the music to wash gently over them both, Stratton Hild played the song. When she opened her eyes, she saw that the woman had turned toward the window and stopped breathing. She had died with the sound of “Amazing Grace” in her ears.

More recently, Dr. Stratton Hild (PhD in musicology) has been engaged in a fascinating study of plainsong chants that different communities would sing to dying persons in the Middle Ages. There were entire liturgies to comfort the dying.  The presupposition was that the whole community of friends and family would accompany the dying person on their journey through death and beyond.  No one, it was assumed, should have to die alone.  And no one should die without the support of the community of believers who would care for both their bodily requirements and their emotional and spiritual needs.

Medieval people were not alone in this conviction. Many cultures have developed practices to help “accompany” the dying both physically and spiritually.  A mother of three children who had for a time been a novice with a religious community mentioned that, when a certain bell sounded in that community, everyone would leave whatever they were doing to come to the room of the dying sister. The entire community (spilling out into the hallway) would then sing a chant while the person died.

Most of us in the modern secularized world have, it seems, forgotten how to deal with the dying. Our tendency is to lock the dying person away in a room so that no one can see this “failure” of our modern technology.

A friend sent a description of Miss Stratton Hild’s work several weeks ago when an article of mine appeared in The Catholic Thing in which I exhorted Catholic bishops and priests to take more of the burden off of bereaved families when parishioners die. The wake, the rosary, and the funeral should all take place in the Church in full view of the altar and the cross, I suggested, not at an extravagant cost in a creepy funeral “home.”

Bodies need not be embalmed – it’s a toxic disaster for the environment – and people should then be buried in a simple wooden box in the earth in the churchyard as has been done for centuries.  Spending thousands of dollars to bury a body while leaving Mass as a minor afterthought makes no more sense than spending thousands of dollars on a wedding and leaving Mass as a minor afterthought.  (Oh, right; we do that too.)


Listening to Dr. Stratton Hild talk about her work convinced me I had barely scratched the surface of the issue in my previous article. The Church, I am now convinced, should offer its help and the consoling presence of the Body of Christ not only in burial, but throughout the entire process of dying. And by “the Church,” I don’t just mean clerics.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of priests and nuns. I can think of few things more comforting in the hospital than seeing a nurse who is also a religious sister in her habit. Catholics used to see that all the time. We never do anymore. (Why?) But priests and nuns cannot do everything; they cannot do what only a community can do. And we should not presume to “off-load” this work on them out of our sight the way we have off-loaded it onto doctors and nurses.

The one thing every dying person I’ve known has wanted is to die at home.  Not one of them did. And in a hospital, the likelihood of a person getting music, chant, a communal liturgy, or the simple presence of friends and family around-the-clock, is nearly non-existent.

We have allowed ourselves to be atomized by modern culture into little separate units. And when we do that, we have no power against the institutions that promise to care for us, but which are increasingly threatening us.  The medical community has an invaluable role to play in treating the dying, but it is only a part.  No one should have to die alone, in the hospital, far from home.

I was privileged recently to participate in a Melkite memorial service for a woman’s father who had died.  It was sad, but beautiful and deeply moving.  The only tragedy was that the man couldn’t be there to experience it. And I don’t mean that as a joke. (He was late for his own funeral?)  I mean I can imagine few things more beautiful and consoling to a dying person than to experience this sort of liturgy.

We need to recover the liturgies and communal practices the Church used for centuries to comfort the dying and console their families before society decided it was a “medical issue.”  We do violence to the human person when we fail to understand the importance and value of eating and talking with others, of laughter, appropriate touching, music, singing, and the loving presence of friends, family, and community. This is true during our healthy years, but it is no less true with the dying.

Death is not a human failure. It is a natural end of human life. Moreover, Christ called upon his followers to understand that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Later St. Paul would write that “if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Is this still our faith?  Then we need to surround people with repeated expressions of that faith as they approach their final journey.

For a wonderful introduction to Dr. Elaine Stratton Hild’s project, see the short video at:

Elaine Stratton Hild [Photo by Matt Cashore]

*Image: Death and Ascension of St. Francis by Giotto, c. 1335 [Upper Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi]. This is the 20thof 28 scenes (25 painted by Giotto) of the Legend of Saint Francis.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.