Courtesy of the New York Times | 08.01.2015 | By JENNIFER L. HOLLIS
Gloria Pizzilli
Gloria Pizzilli

When I went to school to become a music thanatologist, I was in my early 20s. Patients and families were sometimes

surprised when I showed up at their deathbed vigil during my training. The wife of one elderly patient met me at the door and cupped my face with her hands. “You’re so young,” she said. “What are you doing here?” It was the question of my life.

Music thanatologists care for dying patients using harp and vocal music as prescription rather than performance. With the raw materials of music, we offer vigils that are tailored to a patient’s diagnosis, vital signs and responses in the moment. Rather than providing a concert of familiar songs, a music vigil offers a quiet space for reflection, rest and, sometimes, for finding meaning as death approaches.

ired by various medical organizations, we go wherever the patients are: hospitals, nursing homes, hospice inpatient units and private homes. Someone who is dying quickly may receive just one music vigil, while people who are declining slowly may receive many during their last weeks or months.

I’ve done this work as a student in Montana, an intern in Oregon and a professional at a hospice in Illinois. For the last nine years I’ve worked part time at a hospital near Boston.

Being called an angel is a compliment, usually. Angels signify protection and peace, and the word suggests that I have some special expertise about death. But we are all death people sooner or later. We will lose people we love and be stamped with our own dates, a beginning and an end. Soon my own body, whose 40-something changes now surprise me, will be gone. Even this essay will be archived into zeros and ones, a digital afterlife that will last longer than the hands that typed it.

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