Singing for the Dying: A Conversation with the Threshold Singers of Washington DC
On an especially hot summer day during the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Threshold Singers of Washington DC offered me a “song bath.” At first, I was a bit nervous. The choir typically sings to individuals at the end of their lives, and I knew that the experience would be emotional. After a few moments, however, I decided to accept their offer.
Underneath a small tent, I laid down in a comfortable reclining chair. Ten members of the choir sat in a wide circle around me. Before they began to sing, they asked if I wanted to share the name of someone who had recently passed. “My dad,” I told them quietly. “His name was Peter.”
For several minutes, the group shared songs of comfort and care. Almost immediately, I was transported by the beauty and gentleness of their harmonies. For a moment, I even forgot where I was.
“Let life wash over you,” the choir sang. “Let life wash over you.”
The Threshold Singers of Washington DC is a chapter of the Threshold Choir, an international network of choirs that bring music to individuals who are dying. Roughly 180 chapters are active in the United States and around the world. As part of the Festival’s Creative Encounters program, they invited visitors to lie down, close their eyes, and listen. Amid the commotion of the National Mall, the group created a space for stillness, reflection, and healing.
The Threshold Choir was founded by the songwriter and community leader Kate Munger. In 1990, Munger sang at the bedside of a friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS. “I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside,” she recounts on her website. “I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. It comforted me, which comforted him.”
Years later, this encounter was still on Munger’s mind. One day, she found herself singing to dead animals that she encountered while driving. “It is still my practice,” she notes. “I stop whatever I am doing (except driving), turn off the radio, and sing a small song I wrote that begins May your spirit rise safely…”
These experiences inspired Munger to form the Threshold Choir in Northern California. The group held its first meeting on the vernal equinox in 2000. Within a year, Munger had established several chapters of the choir throughout California.
The D.C. chapter was founded in early 2013 and regularly sings at hospices throughout the city. During the Festival, I spoke with two members of the group: Margo Silberstein and director Leslie Kostrich. Kostrich, who is in her mid-sixties, exudes warmth and compassion. A friend introduced her to the Threshold Choir eight years ago.
“Somebody mentioned this, and I immediately knew that I wanted to try,” she recounted. In the years since, she has found great meaning in this work. “This is my mission now, and it's just been amazing. It’s been such a joy to be part of this community.”
For her, singing for those in hospice care has been a deeply emotional, spiritual, and healing experience. When she sings at bedsides, she told me, it often feels “like a redo of my own parents’ death.” Both of her parents experienced cold and sterile deaths in hospitals. When they passed away, hospice wasn’t a widely available resource. In Kostrich’s opinion, hospice provides better experiences for families as well as patients.
“Every time I go, it’s a healing experience because I love to sing—I’ve always sung in my house, everywhere—and I never thought of singing to my parents,” she shared. “It would have meant a lot to have that memory.”
“I had a singing teacher who was sort of like a mother to me,” Silberstein recounted. A practicing psychologist with kind eyes and a warm smile, Silberstein radiates grace. When her teacher was dying, several students gathered at her bedside. Seeing how frightened their mentor was, the group spontaneously began to sing. “I walked out of there, and I said: that was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” After researching choirs in the area, she discovered the Threshold community.
For Silberstein, singing is a spiritual practice. The choir’s songs are poignant and meditative, touching on themes such as love, gratitude, and rest.
“I can sing things that I can’t say,” she reflected. “The songs that we sing—I couldn’t say them with a straight face. It would be hard. But I can sing them to people.”
The majority of the Threshold Choir’s songs are written by members. Their repertoire includes over 500 songs, and members frequently write new ones.
“The oldies-but-goodies are the ones we tend to gravitate to,” Kostrich shared.
The Threshold Singers of DC tend to choose songs that are simple and repetitive, and they especially love songs with multilayered harmonies. The repertoire is non-denominational, although patients occasionally request religious songs. Moreover, silence is often as important as the songs themselves.
“We don’t generally rush from song to song,” Kostrich told me. “We sit there for a minute.”
Songwriters in the Threshold community strive to write music that will bring peace and compassion to those in hospice care. Kostrich has written a number of songs that can be performed both at bedsides and at memorials. “I just hope to bring comfort and to reflect what could be going on between people in the room.”
Although many of their songs are geared toward patients, the choir also sings for family members. For example, the group often sings a song that includes the refrain: I will be your standing stone. “When you sing that, you’re acknowledging both the person who is sick, and you’re acknowledging the people who cared for them,” Kostrich said. “We are not the standing stones. We’re just representing that for the family.”
Through this music, the choir expresses gratitude for both patients and their communities. Moreover, the group endeavors to honor the love that exists between patients and their families. “We’re giving words and voice to something that’s already there,” Silberstein said.
This work is not for everyone. The choir is self-selecting, and many people who attend orientations do not continue. Others routinely attend rehearsals but choose not to sing at bedsides. Kostrich and Silberstein recognize that, for some people, the emotional toll of this work is too high.
Although the singers rehearse their repertoire, they never know what to expect when they visit a patient. “The beautiful part of it is that every bedside is different,” Kostrich told me. “There’s such a variety of situations and people.” Prior to a visit, the choir has little information about the patient. Sometimes, patients are not emotionally ready for the choir’s repertoire. Other times, clients request other genres of music—from religious songs to country tunes to religious songs. Sometimes, patients ask the choir not to sing at all.
“When you get turned down, that’s okay too,” Kostrich reflected. “You know that the person is able to express their preferences in the moment, and that’s good.”
In many respects, the Threshold Choir’s work responds to our society’s prevailing attitudes toward death—that it is a taboo topic often avoided or brushed aside. The work of the Threshold Choir, however, is rooted in an acknowledgement and acceptance of death.
“We’re blessing the process,” Silberstein said. “We’re saying that we’re part of this with you, in this moment. It’s not usually painful. It feels like a privilege, a lot of the time, to be with people in that very tender space.”
The work of the Threshold Choir sits at the intersection of spiritual care and health care. As is the case with many folk songs, the choir’s songs reflect the myriad joys and pains of everyday life. This music celebrates community bonds and invites participation. Moreover, the choir endeavors to transform both givers and receivers.
The choir doesn’t hold auditions, and there are no requirements regarding musical talent or experience. “It's really gratifying to find kindred spirits,” Silberstein said.
In addition to singing for patients and their families, the choir also sings to one another. The group often sings a song entitled “Walking Each Other Home.” The tune, which features lyrics by Ram Dass and music by Kate Munger, repeats the refrain, We are all just walking each other home. For Silberstein, this song exemplifies the ethos of the Threshold Choir.
“That’s really our theme,” she reflected. “It’s like, we want someone to sing with us. We’re doing this with an awareness that we’re all walking each other home. That’s what we’re doing.”
Joshua Kurtz is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care.