When Elaine Stratton Hild, Ph.D., was only 18 years old and a music conservatory student, she was volunteering at a local hospital, playing the viola. One day she was directed to the room of a particular woman who was very ill. She started playing “Amazing Grace” and in the course of the song, the woman died.
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked the hospital staff. “No,” she was told. “You didn’t do anything wrong. That woman rode your hymn right up to heaven.”
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music in viola performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then, poised for a career with orchestras and chamber music ensembles, she was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition. Continuing to play professionally would have meant possible paralysis in her left hand.
As difficult as it was to change course, the diagnosis allowed Hild to embark on a more academic career. She earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
And in 2018, she was a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, a semester-long fellowship during which she conducted full-time research on a fascinating and specialized area: the chants sung for the dying during the Middle Ages.
She currently serves as a musicologist with Corpus Monodicum, a long-term research project housed at the Universität Würzburg (Germany) focused on historically significant monophonic church and secular music of the European Middle Ages.
“There’s an entire repertory of plainchant that historians haven’t dealt with: a collection of works that were meant to be sung, in community, around the bedside of a person who’s about to leave this world.”
Studying archival music in Europe allowed Hild to see the deathbed not so much as an end but an opening — a sacred time during which music could play a beautiful and important part.
A forthcoming book has the working title “Song At the Moment of Death: Chants and Medieval Rituals for the End of Life.” And she runs a small business, Palliative Music, dedicated to providing comfort music for people in the Fort Collins, Colorado, area experiencing difficult medical circumstances and end-of-life care.
In her work with the suffering and dying, Hild plays the viola and the harp. She also sings. “The more fragile, the closer to death, the more gentle the sounds have to be. Sometimes the human voice is the simplest instrument. So sometimes that feels most appropriate.”
Her fervent wish is that we might all come to play music, chant, or sing around the bedside of our loved ones at such moments.
“Interestingly, the historic material I study was not for professionals. It’s made very clear that the chant was for the community. I’m all in favor of medical resources and experts. But death is a human experience, not just a medical experience.”
So maybe one thing these chants are telling us is that a deathbed is not the place for the professionals. “Maybe it’s time for us to come, to gather family, friends, and neighbors, whoever was beloved. And realize that our voices are not only sufficient, but probably the voices that person wants to hear the most.”
We’re very good nowadays at controlling physical pain, Hild notes. But music can draw families together. It can be a moment with a lot of love. “Music is one of the last forms of beauty we’re able to take in. We’re bringing to the person who is dying the peace that passes all understanding.”
“In the Middle Ages they sang not only as a way to channel their grief but to regulate time together, to bring order to the disorientation and chaos that surrounds death. When we sing together, we breathe together. It joins the community together and gives so much meaning and profundity to that moment.”
One chant she worked with was from a 12th-century manuscript from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican that included a setting of Christ’s final words on the Cross: “Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”
“That’s the Christian salvation narrative in a nutshell, so to sing that at a person’s deathbed is very powerful. You’re in some way identifying that person’s death with the crucifixion.”
One of the oldest chants seen in the historic manuscripts was used for centuries and centuries at the moment of death. “I can see why. It’s hard to imagine anything better.”
It starts out like a compressed litany:
“Advance, saints of God. / Run, angels of the Lord. / Taking her soul, / Offering it in the sight of the most High.”
There’s an offering up of the person’s soul, a plea for mercy, and a final blessing to be sung at the last breath. The Requiem “Aeternum” — “Rest eternal give them, Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them” — is a later addition to that chant complex.
“By saying ‘them,’ you’ve incorporated that person into the community of the deceased. It’s a very beautiful way of delivering those we love into the communion of saints.”