The Hallowell singers — a group of volunteers who sing for the dying — celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. In these photos from The Commons archives, the group sings at a public memorial ceremony in 2011. Top: Thomas Jamison. Center left: Karolina Oleksiw and Terry Sylvester. Center right: Larrimore Crockett and Burt Tepfer. Bottom: Helen Anglos and Robin Davis.
Jeff Potter/Commons file photos
The Hallowell singers — a group of volunteers who sing for the dying — celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. In these photos from The Commons archives, the group sings at a public memorial ceremony in 2011. Top: Thomas Jamison. Center left: Karolina Oleksiw and Terry Sylvester. Center right: Larrimore Crockett and Burt Tepfer. Bottom: Helen Anglos and Robin Davis.

Music at a sacred time, in a sacred space

Hallowell singers mark 20 years of choral music that celebrates death as a part of life and helps ease families and their loved ones through the process of saying goodbye

BRATTLEBORO — Hallowell is a local group of singers who volunteer to sing at the bedsides of people facing the end of their lives.

Formed after a small group sang for a dying friend in 2003, Hallowell now includes dozens of singers and is publicly celebrating its 20-year anniversary on Saturday, Aug. 26, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., at the Kiwanis Shelter in Living Memorial Park.

A one-of-a-kind chorus when it started, Hallowell has been instrumental in inspiring and training hundreds of similar groups throughout the United States and around the globe.

Kathy Leo, one of the group's founders, remembers well how the idea to form the group came about.

Leo was a regular volunteer at Brattleboro Area Hospice, which encouraged several people who had sung together in various other groups and choirs to sing for Dinah Breunig, who also was a well-known local singer.

"We worked with Dinah during her last eight or nine months," Leo said. At the end, with the urging of their pastor, the choir came in from the Guilford Church and joined them.

"We sang for her two times, and it was an incredible experience," she said.

For the final sing, approximately 50 singers gathered at Breunig's tiny house in Putney, and Leo remembers that "she was in absolute bliss."

Breunig's husband Fred said his wife was "happy as a clam" during the initial sing. She had stopped communicating by the time of the second sing, but through the "magic of music, I could see that she was singing along in a very quiet way."

Leo said that Peter Amidon, another Hallowell founder, told the singers to go in quietly, sing a song or two, and quietly leave. But Breunig's reaction to the singing, as she was held in the arms of her partner, was a combination of "love, joy, spirit, and heartbreaking grief" as the patient mouthed the words of the songs along with the choir.

As Leo explained, the group left that bedside knowing that whatever had just occurred was something special for all involved - and they wanted to do more of it.

"What we experienced as we sang with and for Dinah, with each other in joy and grief," Leo said, "was what Hallowell was to become, though we couldn't have known it at the moment."

From one sing, a choir emerges

Leo and other interested singers discussed whether they should offer the same experience to other people who were facing their deaths.

Several singers expressed interest in being part of the choir. Mary Cay Brass and Peter Amidon volunteered to become music directors for the group. Susan Parris, the executive director of Brattleboro Area Hospice, strongly encouraged the idea, and Hospice has provided training and support for the singers ever since.

The group is named after "Hallowell," one of the songs in its repertoire that was written by a group member after the death of his good friend from Hallowell, Maine.

"The name 'Hallowell' sounds close to 'hallowed,' which means sacred or reverent. The name suits us and the song speaks to how we feel about the mystery and beauty of death," the singers write on their website.

Many of the first participants were already members of local singing groups like the River Singers and the Threshold Choir. "We had a singing community already," said Amidon, who with his wife, Mary Alice, continues to be involved with Hallowell.

Because many of the singers had already performed together in community groups or in choirs, there was an already-existing repertoire from which the group's songs were pulled.

The singers were familiar with songs like "What a Wonderful World" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and they continued to discover new songs that worked in this new milieu and to add them to the repertoire.

Hallowell presents the songs a cappella in four-part harmony.

The sacred space of dying

The Amidons said that the Hallowell experience has been for them the deepest and most meaningful musical experience of the last 20 years.

"Often the family will cry," Peter Amidon said. "We're giving them an opportunity to cry and grieve. For me, I like life so much, and I don't want to die. Now I've seen dozens of deaths."

He observed that "there is some kind of joy around death."

"We've seen people ready to die and the family ready to have that," Amidon said. "It's a quiet room filled with energy. It becomes kind of timeless."

Fred Breuing said his experience of the singing for his wife's death made him realize that it was "a way for the patient to say goodbye as well." He became a member of Hallowell and has participated in hundreds of sings since then.

"The idea is that at the very end of someone's life, we try hard to bring a soothing song, soothing tones, to that experience for them," Leo said.

The creators of Hallowell realized very quickly that there was much more to providing this service than just organizing a group of singers and developing a repertoire.

"You are entering the sacred space of death and dying," Leo said. "You are entering someone's life and home. How do you prepare people to do this very specific kind of singing?"

While singing for the dying is as old as humanity itself, the group discovered that there were no current models for how to implement the practice in modern, real-life circumstances.

"We had to figure it out," Leo said.

A key part of that was learning from the people the group sang for.

"They were our greatest teachers," she said.

Peter Amidon spoke of how much Leo has taught him and other members about how to handle the service, and he referred to her "incredible instincts" in knowing how to proceed in those emotional circumstances.

Breunig agreed that it is "such a sacred time, to be able to be in that space is really important. I'm very grateful for that experience."

He realized that his wife, though seeming unable to communicate in her final days, showed that the "sense of hearing is the last sense to go when someone is dying."

"It's important to realize that the person in the bed can hear," Breunig said. "They can hear anything that's being said. You have to be loving in the way you speak."

He said his wife passed while he and his daughter were laughing and talking with each other, sitting on the bed with her.

Though she seemed unconscious, "she took that time to say goodbye," Breunig said. "She knew from hearing us that we were going to be OK."

Creating the model for others

Leo noted that it's moving to think about singing for the dying, and when people hear about the concept, it's very stirring for them. People are very concerned with how to deal with death and dying and make it an easier transition, she observed.

In developing a practice for its own members, Hallowell has become the model for many, many similar groups around the world. Its singers have developed and taught numerous workshops on the practice and, in 2016, Leo published her book On the Breath of Song: The Practice of Bedside Singing for the Dying.

"I loved writing it, and I'm grateful to have it to offer to people," she said.

These basic guidelines for singers have been brought to others offering this service in many countries and languages. Hallowell was the first bedside singing group on the East Coast, and the group's friend, choirmaster Kate Munger, brought it to the West Coast.

Starting in the Northeast, Hallowell taught numerous workshops to help similar groups. Singers came from around the country for three-day workshops in Brattleboro. Hallowell has released two CDs of their songs.

"We've met and shared a lot with people," Leo said. "It's one of those things that comes into the world and becomes a shared idea that people are very ready for."

Hallowell's work has had a profound impact across the nation and in Europe.

Today, there are hundreds of similar groups, including dozens around New England. In 2006, Camilla Rockwell made a film, Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life, which featured the Hallowell singers and visual artist Deidre Scherer of Newfane. The Noyana Singers in Burlington developed out of that documentary.

"It has become a movement," Leo said. "We definitely influenced it and were available to help it along."

Reading the room

Part of what Hallowell has learned and teaches others about this ancient practice is to do it at a very high, professional level, Leo said.

"We learned to be totally, fully present with that person," she said. "We're holders of the space, witnesses of a sacred event. We have to understand what would best serve both the dying person and their family."

Inside the room with the dying person is the most sacred time to Hallowell's members. The leader of the group has to constantly read the room, asking what is needed at that moment. Sometimes the group hums quietly instead of singing.

Family dynamics are a big part of the process. The emotions involved in such a significant event are incredibly powerful, and it can lead to an epiphany between the dying and their family or friends.

Not all family members in such situations have good family relationships. Leo said the singers have had to learn how to listen "so deeply to respond to people. We've really learned to be really good listeners because of this practice."

The situation of watching a family member dying can lead to many an emotional breakthrough, but not always.

"Reconciliation doesn't just happen," Leo said, "and sometimes it doesn't happen at all."

The singing may at times simply involve surrounding the family with harmonious sound.

"Music affects us in ways that we don't understand," Leo said - and it can have amazing results.

'No politics in grief'

Over the years, Hallowell has created a learning arc for the practice. They first find out as much about the person and the family as they can. What is important to them?

The group remains intentionally nonjudgmental, Leo said. "You learn to honor other people's choices even if they are the opposite of what you believe."

"Grief is universal," she explained. "There's no politics in grief, no religion. So we ask, 'How can we serve that?' and sing to it.

"No one gets away without grief in their life," Leo said. "It is such a wonderful gift to be able to serve that."

Peter Amidon spoke of the dynamic that has developed among those who have been doing this work together for two decades.

"It draws a pretty caring and interesting group of people," he said. "You have to be centered and learn to leave your ego behind and be as small as possible."

Mary Alice Amidon referred to it as having a "great sense of trust in each other, being as open and responsive as we can."

To that end, all the singers go through the training. Approximately 40 singers are involved in Hallowell, and they go out in groups of four or five. A singing and spiritual leader guides the group in how they set up a sing. Some members have been deeply trained in this practice, and the group relies heavily on them.

Sometimes a person may have passed before even one sing can be arranged, and at other times members may do several sings with one person. One man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) heard the Hallowell singers 15 times over the course of a year.

It is not unusual to do two to four sings for a family, enough time together that the family often becomes very comfortable with, and comforted by, the services.

'The emotion hits after'

After a sing, the singers always have a closing circle together, to care for themselves and for one another.

The circle might result in silence. It might provoke tears, singing, or sharing of feelings. Emotions held in check during the singing service may need to be expressed.

"If there are tears, that's the time," said Mary Alice Amidon. "The emotion hits after. It's such an honor to be there, invited by the family. We prepare ourselves before we go in. It's not a performance, it's a service, but we need a high level of musicianship."

"We always feel deeply satisfied with the experience," Peter Amidon added.

The group also realizes that the experience is not for everyone. Hallowell member Ellen Crockett wrote that she has been closely involved for the past several weeks in the end of life of a close family member. This relative is someone who adamantly does not want any of "those lugubrious hospice songs" sung in her vicinity.

"But this situation reminds me of Hallowell's greatest gift to my own life: learning to accept death as a part of life, and to be comfortable in its surroundings," Crockett said.

"This learning has served me well already in several situations when close friends have been near death, and I could help others around them to be more at ease in a new and scary place," she added.

Crockett, like all of the Hallowell members who spoke to The Commons, said the experience for her has been full of joys, deeply moving moments, uplifts, and revelations.

"It has clearly been one of the greatest gifts of my past 20 years," she said.

Leo said that it was important for the singers to let only "love and compassion" come through their songs and to give as much clarity to the service as possible.

Also, she said, it is critical to never underestimate the level of perceptions that the person on the deathbed has, and how much of the experience they are connecting with.

"I feel that it works," Leo said. "There have been so many gifts from this."

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This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.