SE Examiner

By Heather Maharry

For most of us, work is just the activity that pays our bills and allows us to live our lives. We get up in the morning, do our jobs, and return home in the evening. There are some who find not only a job, but a spiritual calling, like the music-thanatologists of Portland-based non-profit SacredFlight. Barbara Cabot, Sharilyn Cohn, Anna Fiasca, and Gary Plouff are the members of SacredFlight, a palliative music practice for end of life care. Using only harps and the power of their voices, they provide a musical background to ease the passage of patients who are terminally ill and dying.

Music-thanatology – the practice of using music to comfort, to calm, and to relieve suffering – dates back to the Greek temples and monastic infirmaries of the Middle Ages. "It's a medieval practice with a modern application," says Gary Plouff. While some hospitals, like Providence, have music-thanatologists on staff, SacredFlight was established to serve people in the greater Portland area, in hospitals, hospices, care facilities, or private homes. All members of SacredFlight completed a rigorous two-and-a-half year graduate level academic program at the Chalice of Repose Project School of music-thanatology, located in Missoula, Montana.

They have provided over 900 bedside vigils for people nearing the end of life. "This is not an attempt to engage the person," explains Sharilyn Cohn. "It is a sacred responsibility, and you have to be in the right place within yourself in order to handle it – to understand the qualities of music, know what results these qualities bring, and judge when to use a certain quality."

The thanatologist's goal is to create a musical passage for the person without intruding on their final moments. "We often refer to ourselves as 'the Invisible Guest,'" says Cohn. music-thanatologists are part of the interdisciplinary teams for patients, working with hospital staff to plan the best course of care for each person. Each vigil is tailored to the individual and will change and develop during their time with a person. Since only harps and voices are used, the resonance, spectrum of sound and the timbre of the instruments are particularly moving and non-intrusive, alone or combined with song.

"We work with the raw materials of music," states Plouff. "We are actively aware of our surroundings – the noises, people in the room, the patient's condition – developing the melody based on these factors."

Prescriptive music has been used for many years and with good reason. Music vigils may ease respiratory distress, reduce fear and anxiety, allow deeper rest and decrease pain for terminally ill people. It can create a calming, peaceful atmosphere, establishing a sacred space around the patient, family and friends. Although there have been positive changes in Western attitudes toward death, it continues to be a taboo topic in many circles.

While some transitions in life – like births or marriages – are celebrated, this final transition is often downplayed, feared or ignored. music-thanatology creates a space to experience beauty, revere life, and allow people a dignified passage into death. It can stimulate personal reflection, helping loved ones work through grief and the complicated emotions that surround terminal illness and death. Music can move participants closer to acceptance of this mysterious and often frightening aspect of life.

The work can be difficult, but very spiritually rewarding. "I find the experience inspiring and illuminating," says Plouff of the vigils. "There is such honor in being allowed to share this important transition with someone. To be present at such a significant event, and to feel that your music helps the patient and their loved ones, is incredibly moving." For Cohn, music-thanatology reminds her of our universal similarities and the value of life. "I'm struck by how much people have in common during significant life experiences. All the categories we create to define ourselves, which separate and divide us, are stripped away leaving our essence. We react to crisis in similar ways, despite our differences. There are no masks at the end." Cohn's work highlights the short, precious nature of life, encouraging her to appreciate where she is and the people and experiences in her life.

SacredFlight's mission is "to lovingly and compassionately serve the physical and spiritual needs of those nearing the end of life with prescriptive music." Members believe that their service should be available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. In keeping with this philosophy, they do not charge a fee for their services. Expenses are supported by contracts with several care providers (Emanuel, Good Samaritan, and Kaiser Sunnyside among them) that cover less than half the cost of the vigils. The group depends on individual and business donations, workshops, and fundraisers to provide the remaining costs.

To learn more about SacredFlight, schedule a presentation, request a vigil, or make a donation, call 503.241.3344 or email SacredFlight. Event schedules and info can be found at Nurture your soul and support music-thanatology by attending the Winter Respite III concert – a free concert featuring music from the middle ages to the present. Attend Friday, December 5th at Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, or Sunday, December 7th at Mt. Carmel Evangelical Lutheran Church. Donations are tax-deductible, and gratefully accepted.