My End-of-Life Checklist: Will? Check. Health care proxy? Check. My 5 Wishes completed and reviewed with family? Check. My playlist for dying? In Process.
You all know people who have chosen music to be played at their funeral. But, before that time arrives, many of us will still be able to listen to music but will not be able to choose it for ourselves. Hence a Deathbed Playlist.
It’s hard to imagine an experience suited for music better than at the end of life — a time when music’s unique expressive qualities are precious. A person’s favorite-recorded music can be part of a “life review.” For music lovers, such “life soundtracks” aren’t a distraction from the experience of dying but rather a means of deepening it.
I started my Deathbed Playlist a decade ago and have encouraged family members, friends and patients to do the same. By doing this we have given our loved ones the gift of music they treasured during their closing hours. And, as we listen together, it was also a gift for us.
In many traditions, music is divine. Thomas Carlyle called it the “speech of angels.” In the 11th century, Benedictine monks developed an elaborate ritual for the dying, accompanied by Gregorian chants. The music could last as long as the dying did, easily a week or longer. The15th-century composer, Guillaume Dufay, carefully composed his own deathbed music. Paul Simon said, “Music should continue, right on up until you die.”
Today live music is a part of the movement to reintegrate death back into American culture. In 2014, NPR listeners heard from the Threshold Choir, founded by Kate Munger. Its members sing in homes, hospices and hospitals in 150 communities worldwide. Ms. Munger stresses the enormous differences between recorded music, and the deep human connection of live music.
Laura Thomae, a hospice-based music therapist in Philadelphia has sung for the dying for 12 years. She told me. “Only live music can be adapted to mirror, match and change with the varying rhythms of the dying process.”
It is a real possibility that at some point we’ll be unable to express our musical preferences. Even those who are closest to us wouldn’t know all the music we love and the small, distant memories embodied by it.
My husband’s favorite deathbed tune is John Lennon’s classic, Imagine and Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” – a song about travel, flying and love.
My playlist so far — don’t laugh — music from Neil Diamond (my very first album), rock and roll from Green Day, Buddhist chants and YoYo Ma among many others. You can see my growing and ever-changing Deathbed Playlist under Resources.
I encourage you to create your own Deathbed Playlist and help others around you to do the same. You know the kind — music that makes us happy to be alive.