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Concert shows art of music to soothe the dying
The music-thanatologists of SacredFlight display skills they use in easing the transition to death
Thursday, November 30, 2006

The musicians who will gather in a small Southwest Portland church this weekend normally offer their music under very different circumstances.

As music-thanatologists, they have devoted their lives to those who are dying, ensuring that the end of life is filled with as much peace and beauty as possible. They have played at countless bedsides, using the harp and their voices to create, in the words of certified music-thanatologist Sharilyn Cohn, "a sacred, loving presence" that can help ease the transition between life and death.

On Saturday and Sunday, Cohn and other music-thanatologists from around the Pacific Northwest will gather for what has become an annual tradition: a winter concert to introduce more people to their work. Although music-thanatology has gained a steady following through the years in the medical community, with some hospitals going so far as to create staff positions for music-thanatologists, many people remain unaware of the field and its possibilities.

This weekend's concert -- one of three scheduled for Portland, Eugene and Everett, Wash. -- will benefit SacredFlight, a nonprofit founded by Cohn and fellow certified music-thanatologist Barbara Cabot, which sends music-thanatologists, free of charge, into homes, hospitals, hospices and nursing homes around the Portland area to play for people who are terminally ill or dying.

"One of the tenets of music-thanatology is that our service be available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay," they note on the SacredFlight Web site. It is perhaps fitting then, that this weekend's concert also is offered for free, although the flyers note, "Donations welcome."

This is the organization's primary fundraiser of the year, yet there is a deep sense of service in what they do. "We are very committed," Cohn says, "to changing the culture of death and dying."

On a recent Saturday, Cohn, Cabot and music-thanatologists from Portland, The Dalles, Eugene, Olympia and Everett gathered at the Mt. Carmel Evangelical Lutheran Church to rehearse for the event. A row of harps sat off to one side as the group worked their way through the Gregorian chant "Ubi Caritas."

When playing for a patient who is dying, music-thanatologists offer music "prescriptively." By that they mean that they do not come in with a set idea of what they will play -- they do not perform -- but instead, they discern, in each individual situation, what the patient needs -- Is the patient having trouble breathing? Anxious? In desperate need of sleep? Processing difficult news? -- and then offer music that seems to best alleviate those situations.

They watch the patient. They adjust their playing moment by moment, if necessary. They typically do not play familiar music. When they sing, you can't always make out the words -- sometimes it might simply be a series of syllables -- and yet you can still understand the intent.

In this way, the concert is a different experience than the bedside work of music-thanatologists -- planned in advance, with a set program. Yet in it, you can catch a good glimpse of the heart of what they do. Often, family of patients who were visited by music-thanatologists are in the audience.

Jo Turner, whose husband, Robert Turner, was visited by SacredFlight not long before he died, makes a point to attend the concert every year.

"I have traveled out of town to see their concerts," she says. "The music takes me away. I go in and sit down with things on my mind and I'm just transported. It's so peaceful and soothing. Troubles just drift. Some people at the concerts are crying their eyes out. There's something called to each person in a different way."

Inara Verzemnieks: 503-221-8201; inarav@news.oregonian.com