When practicing in the area of estates, we often only think of death in its legal context. We consider the Deceased’s assets, beneficiaries and claims made against the estate. What is often glossed over, however, is the actual end-of-life of the person who left behind what is being fought over. I believe that it is important not to reduce death solely to its legal ramifications. Considering the emotional, personal and even spiritual aspects of death can help add context to your files and can even make you a more understanding lawyer. That is why this recent article in the Huffington Post really struck a chord with me.
The article details the Washington, D.C., Threshold Choir, which performs to the gravely ill or dying. The choir visits (by invitation only) hospices, hospitals and private homes to sing mostly original songs designed to be therapeutic to their listeners. Two or three choir members will visit a bedside and perform songs based on the patient or patient’s family’s requests. The singers typically sing two or three songs to gauge a person’s response. Many times, the patient is too ill to speak and will signal their pleasure with the movement of a finger or a blink of the eyes. The songs are typically not religious and are meant for persons who are spiritual but don’t subscribe to any one faith. Singers typically do not witness their audience’s last breath as they note that people mostly prefer to pass on alone or in the presence of family.
While this concept may seem to be unique, there are apparently dozens of these groups in existence across the United States. This concept is also not unique to North American society; in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures, hymns are sung to the dying while mantras are chanted to them as the moment of death approaches. The article also states that during the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks were well-known for their infirmaries for the terminally ill that incorporated Gregorian chants to soothe the dying. There is even an emerging science, known as thanatology, which is studying the effects that sound’s frequency and tone can have on a dying person, such as changes in breath, heart rate, soundness of sleep and stress-reduction.
The director of the Threshold Choir not only trains her singers’ voices, she urges them to consider bigger questions about the end of life: “What role does this song play in transitions? What do they want to hear in their last week alive?” She states her goal as being “to steer their minds toward thinking about the death that will soon surround them, and to weed out the uncomfortable.”
Bringing it back to the practice of law, estates practitioners mostly gloss over the uncomfortable instead of weeding it out when it comes to death. I believe that thinking about death in its human terms in addition to its legal consequences will inevitably serve to improve your relationships with clients and help you to become a more compassionate person and lawyer.
Thanks for reading and have a good week.