The powerful ghost in the death choir story

The powerful ghost in the death choir story May 3, 2013

While I have listened to choirs that have bored me nearly to death with their singing, I never knew there were choirs that would sing to you when you are near to death.

Turns out, there are, and there’s a story there.

Jaweed Kaleem, the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post, highlights the small but growing trend of deathbed singers in his recent article on Threshold Choirs.

Death used to happen solely at home or in a hospital, with company limited to family, close friends and clergy. Solemn music would be reserved, perhaps, for the funeral. But as the options for the end of life have grown to include hospice, palliative care and other avenues that recognize not only physical but also emotional and spiritual well-being, Synakowski and like-minded volunteers are offering another service to the dying: soothing through a cappella song.

Each week, Synakowski and between five and 10 people gather around an imaginary bed to practice original songs written for the dying. The D.C. circle formed in January, and is one of the newest in a little-known, mainly U.S.-based network that began in Northern California 13 years ago and now includes dozens of groups across the country.

The full potential of web journalism is on display in Kaleem’s superb article. Just when you start to wonder what a deathbed song might sound like, the article drops in a sound clip of the choir performing two original songs. He even includes a slideshow of various choir groups and the people they sing for. From start to finish, it’s well-done, a solid piece of reporting.

But an article on death choirs shouldn’t be haunted by a holy ghost.

The choir members are recruited from churches, sing in churches and their practice session opens “as if it were a worship service.” So why don’t we hear more about the religious angle? The closest we come to finding out what sort of relationship the groups have toward religion is a line buried in a description of the singing events:

The lyrics aren’t religious, and are meant for those who may be spiritual but don’t follow a strict dogma.

On behalf of readers everywhere, I want to plead with journalists to never use a variation of “spiritual, but not religious” (SPNR) without explaining exactly what is meant (is it the opposite of “spiritual but religious?”). The SPNR crowd is already getting short shrift nowadays as they are lumped in with the “Nones.” We need to hear more about what they believe. In an article about crossing over from life to death, it would have been fascinating to know what both the dying and the singers believe lies on the other side of the “threshold.”

This might have something to do with the heart of the story. It’s a journalism thing, you know?

Also, if the singers are recruited in churches and the deathbed singing has occurred in churches, why not explain what type of churches. Is it just the Unitarian Universalist congregation or do the singers also hail from the local First Baptist? This is a tradition among the Amish. Any connections there?

Kaleem does deserve credit, though, for put the singing in a broader historical context:

While bedside singers may be unique in American culture, it’s not unprecedented. In some Hindu and Buddhist practices, hymns are sung near those who are dying, while mantras are chanted into the ear at the moment of death. In the Middle Ages, French Benedictine monks became famous for establishing infirmaries across Europe for the terminally ill, where they used Gregorian chants to soothe the dying.

This is good stuff, but it raises another question that goes unaswered: Is this deathbed singing a new type of liturgical ritual for the “spiritual but not religious?” Are there other rituals like this that are growing in popularity for SPNRs?

Kaleem’s article is a wonderful introduction to the topic. But even at 3,000+ words, he still leaves plenty more to be said about the religious perspective. Enterprising religion reporters looking for something new to write about should track down the ghosts in the death choir story.

(Note: I know there is some debate about whether the Huffington Post is a news site or one dedicated merely to opinion, analysis, and entertainment. Whatever else the rest of the site may be, this article is a quality piece of reporting by a serious journalist. That is why I think it is worthy of critique as a news story.)

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  • Jerry

    First, thanks for pointing me to this wonderful story. I’m very glad to hear about groups like this bringing comfort at the time of death. And I’m glad the emphasis was on what the dying person needed and wanted.

    Now, in the spirit of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, I have a couple of quibbles:

    The word “spiritual” is one of those words that could really distract from the story because to explain what someone means could totally disrupt the flow of the article. In such cases, especially online, a sidebar to the main story would be appropriate. Or perhaps a URL reference to another page with such a discussion. On the other hand if the article had not used the word spiritual at all that would work for me.

    How the Tibetan Book of the Dead is used is a topic unto itself. So I do agree that it was a good thing to include references to other religions, but Buddhist “hymns” are quite different. The book provides instructions to the dying about what to expect during the process of death and afterwards. It’s a fine line but here I would have wanted either a sidebar/url reference or perhaps just a slight rewording of the sentence.

    • Joe Carter

      ***On the other hand if the article had not used the word spiritual at all that would work for me.***

      One of the reasons I thinking fleshing out what is meant by “spiritual” is important is because the Threshold Choir mentions it themselves. For example, on their website is says, “Because our songs are not religiously oriented, our singing is appropriate for those who are deeply spiritual, whether religious or not.”

  • Jerry

    I forgot to mention one thing:

    (Note: I know there is some debate about whether the Huffington Post is a news site or one dedicated merely to opinion, analysis, and entertainment.

    There are some who have that same impression of the traditional MSM.

    The old “duck” test applies: if it looks like a news story and reads like a news story, it’s a news story.

    • Joe Carter

      I completely agree. I’m care more about the content than the venue in which the news story appears.