Soul music: Singing to people facing death

Heart of London Threshold singers - group of women with pink scarves singing

Three minute read

Communal singing plays a central role in many traditions. It’s a way of bringing people together, expressing deep emotions and passing on stories.

Even those of us who can’t read music, or would run a mile rather than sing in public, still will have some connection to song in our daily lives. We might find ourselves feeling happier after singing along to the car radio, sharing a nursery rhyme with a baby, or joining in with a football chant.

Heart of London Threshold Singers are part of a global movement of people who want to share the healing experience of song with people who are dying or grieving. Kish Modasia (centre, back row) has been a member of the choir, which rehearses twice a month in west London, for three years.

How it all started

The first Threshold Choir was founded by Kate Munger in the USA over 20 years ago. The idea was sparked by Kate’s feelings of powerlessness when trying to support a dying friend. How could she help? She found out by chance that singing to him brought them both comfort and connection. The idea spread. Now there are over 200 choirs, known as chapters, worldwide.

“I found out about the choir while I was exploring training in interfaith ministry,” explains Kish. “I heard them sing at a friend’s ordination. I knew I would love to join, but I couldn’t read music and was worried about having to audition. But the choir leader, Natacha Ledwidge, told me I didn’t need to be concerned about any of that. I should just come along to a meeting and see how I felt after that.

What happens at a Threshold Choir meeting?

“I discovered that at the first choir meeting you go to, you start by receiving the singing, not singing yourself. You sit in a reclining chair, covered by a blanket. The rest of the choir form a circle all around you and sing to you. This had such an impact on me. As givers, we often forget about our need to receive.

“As well as the rehearsals every fortnight, once a month we have a sacred circle. We bring food to share and sit around in a circle. We drum and chant and there is a stone which is passed around to show whose turn it is to speak. Everyone listens without responding. No one has to speak.”

Apart from this spiritual aspect, there are other features that make the Heart of London Threshold Singers distinctive. One is that, although they accept donations, they offer their services as a gift without any charge attached. And another, is that the choir is female-only.

“For me, it feels like a shift away from patriarchy, a way of redressing the balance,” says Kish. “There is a strength from women supporting women.”

Heart of London Threshold singers - group of women in a circle around a woman lying down, singing

Where does the choir sing?

If requested, three or four choir members will sing simple, calming songs by the bedside of someone who is dying. But they also sing for funerals, weddings and events which are held for recently bereaved people at their local hospice. During lockdown, however, their reach increased even further.

“We had to meet on zoom, but how can you do a choir on zoom?” asks Kish. “We continued rehearsing, with Natacha playing the music and singing. The rest of us stayed on mute, but sang along with her in our own homes. There is something vulnerable about singing by yourself, even when you are alone at home. Then we all started taking turns in singing out loud.

“As an experiment, we decided to offer ‘songbaths’ on zoom, where we invited people in to listen to us sing. People joined us from all over the world. The feedback was so good that we did it again. We were so grateful to be able to do this at a time when so many people were feeling isolated and alone.”

Singing as a part of a spiritual tradition

Threshold choirs honour all spiritual paths and have no religious affiliation. However, Kish finds a resonance with her Hindu upbringing and practice:

“In Hinduism, in our tradition, when someone dies, we pray and sing bhajans [hymns] for them each day for 13 days. You must complete all the ceremonies during these days, including bathing and dressing the body and the cremation. Every day you go to the person’s house to pay your respects and every day there is singing. It brings people together.

“We sing bhajans for joyous occasions as well, but it’s especially important when someone dies. These songs talk about the soul’s journey. A few men join in, but it’s very much female-led. Often, when there is a death in my community, I am called on to lead the singing. These songs are passed down through generations, and I pass them on to others who do not know the songs. I believe that music is part of every religion or spiritual path.”

Every member of the Heart of London Threshold Singers has their own reason for joining and their own journey to get there. But when they do, they find it’s an experience that makes as much difference to them as it does to the people they are singing to.

“I didn’t realise what a big part of my life this choir is, until my daughter asked me if I would be able to look after my grandson one day a week,” reflects Kish. “I knew I couldn’t do Mondays because that’s my choir day. I couldn’t miss it. It really nurtures me.”

If you want to find out more about the Heart of London Threshold Singers, or are interested in joining, visit their website or listen to some of their songs.

Read more interviews with people on the frontline of death and dying — find out why coffin clubs are catching on or what a palliative care doctor really does.

Discover more articles