In Brief: What is Music-Thanatology?

Fine-tuning the many strings of the harp occurs throughout the day, before attending each patient, and in addition to solid professionalism, fine-tuning the strings quickly becomes, for the music-thanatologist practitioner, a spiritual metaphor for the fine-tuning of the inner life.         

The word Thanatos comes from the Greek and refers to the mythological figure who is the twin brother of Sleep (Hypnos) and the son of Nyx or Night. There are many kinds of thanatologists today — medical, academic, theological, psychological — and all are needed. Music-thanatology is a discipline with just under fifty years of history. It has served literally thousands of dying patients and their loved ones, and attracted the attention of distinguished medical, musical and theological teaching centers and practitioners throughout the United States and Europe.

It is a contemplative practice with clinical applications, and a sub-specialty of palliative medicine. In its sole focus on the physical and spiritual care of the dying with prescriptive music, it is also a pastoral art which takes the words of the Gospel seriously in that it turns toward the face of suffering without reserve.

Music-thanatologists who have received a certificate of completion live a life of vocation/profession, and their work manifests in a synthesis of clinical acuity, musical artistry, and ongoing inner development. Music-thanatologists are paid professionals, and work in hospitals, parishes, hospices, and long-term care facilities, in clinical practices large and small, in part-time and full-time rotations. Some also do volunteer work; both profiles represent a life of service.

The Chalice of Repose Project offers a rigorous education in which music-thanatology students encounter a combination of elements of four distinctly different pedagogical models: medical school, conservatoire training, seminary and the liberal arts tradition.

From 1992 to 2002, in Montana, within the traditional classroom environment, five distinct stages were required in the following order. Successful completion of the classroom didactic was followed by a symbolic and meaning-filled pinning ceremony. The pinning ceremony was followed by a challenging clinical internship. The successful completion of the clinical internship was followed by the formal acceptance of a thesis or professional paper, and finally, the successful completion of comprehensive exams.  At that point, the individual was formally and warmly acknowledged as a music-thanatology professional.

From 2005 to the present, in Oregon, the low-residency online delivery system requires a different structure. The order of the five stages occurs differently. The pinning ceremony and the receiving of the Chalice of Repose Project certificate of completion can occur at a single event, after successful completion of classroom didactic, internship, thesis writing and comprehensive exams.  

The music-thanatologist works with those who are imminent and actively dying (24-48 hours) or with those who are processing, and have received a terminal diagnosis, usually approximating six months. The goal of music-thanatology and prescriptive music deliveries is at least four-fold: relief of acute and chronic physiological pain and/or spiritual or interior suffering; the creation of the supportive conditions which can facilitate reconciliation and meaning in the face of mortality and suffering; a blessed or peaceful or conscious death which is returned back into the fullness of life and the whole human life cycle; the transformation of the personal, familial, medical, cultural, and community experiences of death.

This text was excerpted from Transitus: A Blessed Death in the Modern World (St Dunstan’s Press 1st edition 2000 and 2nd edition 2005); “The Chalice of Repose Project’s Music-Thanatology: History and Praxis” in Music and Medicine: Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 128 – 144; and the forthcoming Luminous Wound series (Angelico Press 2022). All are © Therese Schroeder-Sheker; all rights reserved.

This vigil information continues on What is Contemplative Musicianship?

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