NPR catches a glimpse of a "good death"

feb03gBack in the late 1990s, a close friend -- a mentor, even -- died of cancer. Through the years I had learned that he loved music but didn't know very much about music. So I kept giving him music. Shortly before his death, I mailed him a copy of the stunning Robert Shaw recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers. I told him that Orthodox Christians believe the Divine Liturgy never ends in heaven. Facing death, he was now living through the night before the feast. Thus, I sent him Vespers, some of the most beautiful music ever composed for the great twilight services on Saturday evening.

Later, family members told me that they put the CD on "repeat" and played it during the final day of his life.

Here is why I bring this up. I think it is hard to do a story about death and dying -- weaving in themes of music, beauty, peace and comfort -- without raising religious issues. However, I heard a Korva Coleman story on NPR that did it, or came very, very close.

The story focused on the lovely music-therapy work of Carol Joy Loeb, who strives to relieve pain through the music of her harp. This is now considered, by some, a form of alternative medicine and treatment.

Some studies on palliative music show that harp music brings peace to patients, but others call for more research into its effects. And doctors may not agree that it's beneficial. However, one former skeptic on Loeb's Hospice team changed her mind after seeing the harpist at work. Dr. Deborah Wertheimer, the medical director of Seasons Hospice in Baltimore, didn't oppose the bedside music. She reasoned that at least the music would be beautiful to hear. But Wertheimer was startled when she saw Loeb obtain dramatic results with one dying patient.

"This (patient), who had been so agitated and just all over the bed, on the floor occasionally, because we just couldn't keep her comfortable, quieted down," Wertheimer says, "and obviously was attentive to the music, even though I would have thought that it would have made somebody who was so afraid of dying, more afraid to hear harp music coming at her. This lady remained peaceful for some period of time. It was just a pleasure to see, because we clearly had not been able with traditional medicines to achieve that kind of comfort for her."

That sounds interesting, to say the least.

A long time ago, during my teaching days at Denver Theological Seminary, I taught a seminar on images of death in popular culture and news.

One of my main points is that religious groups in the modern world have lost contact with what earlier generations used to call the "good death," in which a dying person was surrounded by family and even forms of sacred music and the reading of Scripture (not to mention the Sacraments). Today, many people are -- justly -- terrified that they will die alone in a medical facility, surrounded by cold metal and technicians.

stringsFor me, with my biases, I think this was the issue that was haunting the NPR team in this story. I mean -- harp music? Hello?

If you are interested, click here for a column I once wrote about the death and dying rites in the Bruderhof communes, as described for me by the famous peace activist Johann Christoph Arnold. He once told me the story of his own mother's painful, yet peaceful, death from cancer.

After decades of serving others, she also found it hard to be an invalid who needed constant care. Still, there were transcendent moments. Throughout her five-month ordeal, children gathered to sing hymns and pray at her bedroom window. ...

The inspiration flowed both ways. As the children learned about her suffering, many wrestled with questions of life, death and eternity. Annemarie Arnold knew this and, on her deathbed, prayed for those making life-changing decisions on the other side of the windowpane.

No one found it strange that children found inspiration in the dying days of an elderly woman. No one found it strange that she took comfort in the fact that her life and death inspired others.

The NPR report was one piece of a much bigger story. I hope NPR devotes more attention to the "good death" and the sacred rites that go with this concept.

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