Music for the Departing Soul
Does music help the departing soul in any way? We now know for instance the role of music in health and illness. Several studies indicate that the type of music we hear can help us recover or set in motion within us the forces of disease and disruption. But what about the extreme disruption that death itself is? We have in Greek mythology the interesting tale of Orpheus whose soul-stirring music following his beloved’s death moved even the king of Underworld Hades to give back to Orpheus his beloved. Was it just another myth or like all myths contains in its core the seed of a profound truth hidden from our earthbound sight?
There is also the tradition of chanting hymns and psalms and mantras in the East and West alike at the deathbed. Maria Parkes plays the harp for those who are near the gates of death. Involved intimately with hospice care for the terminally ill, she calls her role the end-of-life midwifery. Just as the traditional midwife delivers the body from the physical womb, Maria through her music assists and ensures the smooth delivery of the soul from the dark womb of matter onto its passage through the other worlds after death. Reproduced below is an extract of her interview in which she shares some of her experiences with us.
Q: Can we have a word about you as an introduction for our readers?
Well, I was born and brought up in the USA but have settled down in Spain. I have been coming to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since 1971. My profession, music thanatology, is a field whose practitioners provide musical comfort, using harp, voice, and a special repertoire of music, at the bedside of patients near the end of life. In the music vigil itself, however, I do not let my personal faith interfere. As all of my fellow music thanatologists, we begin by becoming silent within as we observe the patient and try and feel what type of music might aid and give comfort. The music thanatologist needs to connect to their inner self and attune to the person’s inner need at the moment. And then we begin. You see, it is important to understand that it is not a performance. If one takes it as a performance then it does not work. During the silence between musical offerings, applause or comment is discouraged. The patient and others present are simply asked beforehand to receive the music. The patient is of primary importance, but the family is also taken into account. It is recognized that the family members are experiencing grief, loss, change and a desire to support the patient. And they are encouraged to be present.
Q: How long have you been involved with this process of assisting the departure through music?
For nearly 10 years now, since 1994. I underwent more than two years of training at the only music thanatology school in the world, located in Missoula, Montana, USA. Since antiquity, music and medicine have a long tradition as allies in healing. Music Thanatology is a contemporary field rooted in that same tradition. It has developed over the last three decades through the vision and dedication of Therese Schroeder-Sheker. It is a rigorous program consisting of studies in medicine, harp, voice, medieval history, religion, and psychology.
Q: How did you get to know about it? Was it inborn, waiting to be discovered or did your interest awaken after some incident or chance meeting with someone?
Actually it all happened when I lost a friend in an accident. His death in the hospital lacked any warmth, beauty, or intimacy. I thought that there must be some better way of dying. And just about that time I learnt about this course. There were quite a few applicants and I happened to be among the lucky ones.
My teacher had an even more interesting story. While involved in the care of an exceptionally rough and difficult patient, she as if under an inner inspiration held the dying man and sang gently to him for nearly an hour. The person slowly became quiet and peacefully died in her arms. That turned her thinking about the role of music in relationship to the dying.
Q: Can you please enlighten us a little on this process of assisting the departure through music?
You see, it has a very interesting history. My teacher, Therese Schroeder-Sheker, told me that there existed a whole body of literature on this subject in the Latin world. Especially what we know now as the Gregorian chants were originally a collection of some of the finest hymns from the Western world as well as the East. These chants are in Latin and several were used in medieval times to soothe the soul in its passage through the other worlds.
In actual practice during the music vigil, we use a harp (usually a thirty one stringed instrument almost five feet high) and voice. There are preferably two of us who play from both sides of the patient, enveloping, or what could be described as bathing, the dying person with music, creating an atmosphere of serenity and beauty. I believe scientists have discovered something to the effect that one hears not only through the ears but also through the skin and the whole body. Hearing is, I believe, one of the last faculties to go which is why music plays a great role in the dying process. Whether conscious or comatose, hard of hearing or not, it can address physical and spiritual pain, restlessness, labored breathing, anxiety, sleeplessness, and emotional distress. Even slow degenerative diseases such as ALS, multiple sclerosis, end-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s are aided by music vigils. It also offers a transformative and helpful presence during the difficult experience of removing a patient from life support systems.
The music is termed ‘prescriptive’, that is, it is tailored to that particular patient’s dying process. As to the type and technique, we prefer many chants without a fixed meter. And then it is a question of attunement. Depending upon where the person is in his or her process of dying, some respond better to short and simple melodies and others might need a musical whisper rather than a melody. I have seen a well-known concert pianist who refused with a gesture whenever someone tried to play taped classical music that she knew well. Perhaps she felt tied down by that and became immersed in memories. Whereas her ‘being’ really wanted to be free. But she responded very well to our simple music as it allowed her to go forward in her journey instead of becoming caught in the past.
Q: And how did you develop it? Is there some way to discover and develop this kind of music or does one rely on inspiration? More specifically would just any good, soulful music help or is there some specific type of music that is useful in this process?
It is both training and inspiration. There cannot be a fixed rule in this process. For each one it is different as I said. My teacher however used to be wary of recorded music. She never approved of it. It is like comparing a real painting to an image or photo of it. Something extra always comes when it is being played live. There is a greater connectivity. But then that may not be possible always. So one does with the next best alternative. We describe our music as being contemplative, drawing primarily on traditions of sacred song (Gregorian chants, hymns, prayer) and lullabies.
One of my personal favorites is a chant called Ave Maris Stella, written in France in 1100 AD. Although the monk wrote it well over a thousand years ago, one can still feel his great and genuine love for the Divine Mother through his words and the rhythm of his melody. For me, when I play and sing it, it is like praying to the Mother, so I can relate and connect to it much more personally.
Q: Do you have any views on the ancient practice of chanting incantations, hymns, psalms and mantras in the East and the West during the rituals following death?
I am sure the human voice and the sacred chants must have an effect. But then it should not be a performance and instead come from within. Although I like some mantras, I would not want some priest chant them mechanically for me when I need them.
Q: Could you please share with us some interesting incidents during the course of your sessions?
Oh! Plenty, I could narrate plenty of them. There was one vigil when I was playing for a lady who had been in a coma for quite some time. As I stopped for a while (we believe in alternating with sound and silence), she opened her eyes and asked why we had stopped playing the music! After a moment of shock on our part, we continued.
Another woman, the wife of a friend, had Alzheimer’s and other problems and needed twenty-four hour care. She had not recognized anyone for over a year. Although she was not technically in the process of dying, I said that I would be happy to play for her. Her husband and daughter were present for the vigil. No sooner had I begun when she sat up, smiled, acknowledged her family and eagerly watched my hands on the harp with a huge smile on her face. She said little, but her family was able to connect with her again for over an hour before she again retreated into her own private world. I am happy to say that we repeated this vigil often, giving her and her family some final moments of communication.
The one that really struck me as exceptional was the case of the young boy who was on life support systems after being in a car accident. He was clinically dead with no brain function and the decision to remove him from life support systems had been made. The music continued to be played for his family and for the seemingly dead boy. And then after a moment, two tear drops rolled down his cheek as if the dead were listening.
On another occasion, while playing for a funeral, I distinctly heard another harpist and a voice singing. I looked around, totally surprised, expecting to see someone but there was no one playing or singing any music other than myself. Yet my experience was so very real it was like hearing me strike this tabletop.
These experiences are not only mine. All my colleagues have seen and heard so many small miracles that the music brings to the deathbed.
Q: What do you have to say to our euthanasia enthusiasts? Is it wise to cut prematurely the chord of life just because the person is seemingly irretrievably unconscious? From your account it seems that the unconscious is not really unconscious except to the outward eye. He is possibly somewhere awake in his depths waiting for some Maria to play an uplifting music to his soul!
Absolutely, I am not at all in favour of euthanasia. But then nowadays there are so many ways of prolonging life artificially, so I do not know, may be sometime people want to leave. But in general, I am against it.
Q: Have you noticed any difference in the believers and the non-believers in terms of their departure or at the time of their death?
You see, I have seen interesting things. Many persons who profess a belief do it ritualistically. I have seen regular church goers or even those professing faith in some Master show anxiety and fear of the unknown, asking ‘why me?’ Whereas I have seen some of the other types accept death so gracefully. A colleague of mine had the occasion to play for the head of a motorcycle gang who had lived, to say the least, a rather wild life. He gave up his body and welcomed death with serenity and peace. So there is something in our depths which is of much more importance than our superficial beliefs. That’s all I can say.
Q: To sum it up, what would you recommend by way of assisting departure in the immediate period around death?
It is best to have a quiet atmosphere with family and friends around you. Of course I think that music helps enormously. But it is not for anyone. What I would suggest is that when one knows that they are terminally ill, to contemplate what you would like as a support for your last moments or days on earth. Do you want a special mantra, chant, or poem read? Is there some piece of music that you feel would support your journey out of this world? Is there someone you want present? This would be wonderful not only for the patient, but also it gives the loved ones remaining something to offer the dying. Everyone’s birth is unique and so will be their death.
An Extraordinary Death
I returned to Pondicherry in the evening. Next morning I went to the daily balcony darshan. The Mother caught sight of me and smiled and kept looking at me for a long time. After this I went straight upstairs to see her. It was a lovely meeting, with the Mother looking deep and long into my eyes. I asked her if she would meet me for five or ten minutes alone in the course of the morning. She at once consented.
I had my interview at about 11:30. She was sitting in her chair with eyes half shut and I went and sat at her feet, placing my hands upon them. I asked her whether she had received the letter I had written after my Mamma’s death, giving an account of what had happened and clearing up what I had considered as not quite understood. The Mother said:
“Yes, I got your letter, but it did not teach me anything I did not know. I had quite understood your earlier telegram and known exactly what had been happening. At the end of your letter you have asked me to tell you what took place on my side. I’ll tell you.
“There was one thing of very special interest. When you first wrote to me about your Mamma, I put the decisive force which would make the soul’s wish prevail. I found that your Mamma’s condition began to improve. This showed that the soul had not wished to go. When I looked into the whole matter I found that she might linger on for a year or two, a long-drawn-out slow illness and not at all a pleasant period.
“Several days later, on getting news from you, I again did some working. Then I went to my room and while I was walking up and down a very extraordinary event happened. Suddenly the Supreme Will came down. You see, this Will does not always intervene. One puts forth consciousness but the Will does not act. It is rarely that the Will descends like this. It is a direct action from the Highest. Well, it came down with a view to take your Mamma’s soul. And your Mamma’s soul, instead of making any kind of reaction, most readily consented. Most willingly it offered itself to the Supreme Will. I would say that it was a very pretty gesture. Connected with the soul’s movement, there was a human movement, a movement of love which said that she had troubled and bothered people enough with the illness and now wished not to trouble and bother them any more.
“Then the end came, and the soul at once, at a single sweep, jumped into my heart and passed into the Soul-World for rest. There was no passage at all through the intermediate worlds, no difficulty or halting anywhere. This was because the soul had so spontaneously and gladly responded to the Supreme Will. The Supreme Will took it straight to its destination.”
I said: “Mamma was remembering you all the time. There was no name on her lips except yours. Whenever asked what she was thinking of, she said she was thinking of Mother darling. Even to the doctors she kept speaking of you, and your picture and Sri Aurobindo’s were mostly on her chest.”
“It must be because of this that her soul so readily gave itself to the Supreme.”
“What about the open-eyed vision my sister Minnie saw?”
The Mother smiled, nodded and said: “One may say that it was in the right line. I remember reading of it in your letter. She saw my body transparent, didn’t she?”
“Yes. I’m very glad at the beautiful thing that happened to Mamma at the end. What a fine end!”
Wisdom from the Tibetan Book of the Dead
(The following are extracts taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, followed by the author’s comments)
“The state of mind at the time of death is regarded as extremely important, because this plays a vital part in the situation one is reborn into. This is one reason why suicide is regarded in Buddhism as very unfortunate, because the state of mind of the person who commits suicide is usually depressed and negative and is likely to throw him into a lower rebirth. Also, it doesn’t end the suffering, it just postpones it to another life.”
This is very similar to what is proscribed in other faiths. We shall see similar views of Hinduism on the above subject regarding the state of mind and the problem of suicide.
“When considering the spiritual care of the dying, it can be helpful to divide people into several different categories, because the category they are in will determine the most useful approach to use. These categories are: 1) whether the person is conscious or unconscious, and 2) whether they have a religious belief or not. In terms of the first category, if the person is conscious they can do the practices themselves or someone can assist them, but if they are unconscious someone has to do the practices for them. For the second category, if a person has specific religious beliefs, these can be utilised to help them. If they do not, they still need to be encouraged to have positive/virtuous thoughts at the time of death, such as reminding them of positive things they have done during their life.”
An extremely practical and helpful suggestion. Many of us as healthcare practitioners begin to contradict the person’s faith or try to impose our own. This only increases the conflict and anxiety level of the recipient. Being at the receiving end, he may nod a yes but this has little meaning since it is not supported by anything deeper. Such a faith has little power of effectiveness. Faith is a spontaneous thing, a thing of the soul and not of reason and argument. It will do well for the physician to respect the client’s faith and even use it to maximise the gains of counseling. Even if there is a need to widen the faith (and not replace it as we commonly try to do) it should be done gently, keeping in mind the unique past constitution of the patient and his aspirations for the future. Faith, like love, cannot be forced. It has to awaken from within or be inspired from without by a secret interchange between the patient’s soul and the physician’s.
“For a spiritual practitioner, it is helpful to encourage them to have thoughts such as love, compassion, remembering their spiritual teacher. It is beneficial also to have an image in the room of Jesus, Mary, Buddha, or some other spiritual figure that may have meaning for the dying person. It may be helpful for those who are with the dying person to say some prayers, recite mantras, etc. this could be silent or aloud, whatever seems most appropriate.”
Speaking of faith, the Mother mentions that for a whole year in Tlemcen in the early 1900’s, she was busy creating a passage through the vital worlds for those who die so that anyone even with an iota of true faith can go through this painful passage in a state of protection and Grace. There are countless instances testified several times of her going into the inner worlds to help the departed. In fact it is part of the inner work taken by all genuine spiritual Masters to provide help not only as a guidance in this life but also a concrete protection in the lives hereafter including the interregnum passage of death. Here one must add that it is not only the faith in a particular outer form or figure but the inner faith and relation we put up, in other words, what the person means to us is of much more importance than the professed outer mechanical belief.
“However, one needs to be very sensitive to the needs of the dying person. The most important thing is to keep the mind of the person happy and calm. Nothing should be done (including certain spiritual practices) if this causes the person to be annoyed or irritated. There is a common conception that it is good to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead to the dying person, but if he/she is not familiar with the particular deities and practices contained in it, then this is not likely to prove very beneficial.
“Because the death process is so important, it is best not to disturb the dying person with noise or shows of emotion. Expressing attachment and clinging to the dying person can disturb the mind and therefore the death process, so it is more helpful to mentally let the person go, to encourage them to move on to the next life without fear. It is important not to deny death or to push it away, just to be with the dying person as fully and openly as possible, trying to have an open and deep sharing of the person’s fear, pain, joy, love, etc.”
We have here a further elaboration of what is written earlier. To ensure that the departure is in the best possible conditions is the task of those who are involved in the care of the dying. The Mother has especially emphasised the need to stay calm and direct a prayer and thoughts of love in favour of and on behalf of the person. Such prayers and thoughts act like a shield of protection for the departed soul. And also to avoid grief and all its other forms that only increase the heaviness of the departed, make the journey painful and pull the soul earthward. It is for this reason also (besides the other inherent dangers involved) that planchettes and mediumistic séances are not advisable. It is seldom that the person summoned comes from the land of dead. Usually some other being or force of the vital world masquerades as the invited guest to have some fun at our expense (sometimes at quite an expense). These entities can read our feelings and wish and often communicate things favorable to our desires! A good number of such automatic phenomena are simply the product and creation of our own subconscious wishes and not an authentic brush with the other world.
“As mentioned previously, when a person is dying, their mind becomes much more subtle, and they are more open to receiving mental messages from those people close to them. So silent communication and prayer can be very helpful. It is not necessary to talk much. The dying person can be encouraged to let go into the light, into God’s love, etc. (again, this can be verbal or mental).
“It can be very helpful to encourage the dying person to use breathing meditation — to let go of the thoughts and concentrate on the movement of the breath. This can be helpful for developing calmness, for pain control, for acceptance, for removing fear. It can help the dying person to get in touch with their inner stillness and peace and come to terms with their death. This breathing technique can be especially useful when combined with a mantra, prayer, or affirmation (i.e. half on the in-breath, half on the out-breath).
“One of the Tibetan lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche, says that for up to about twenty-one days after a person dies they are more connected to the previous life than to the next one. So for this period in particular the loved ones can be encouraged to continue their (silent) communication with the deceased person — to say their good-byes, finish any unfinished business, reassure the dead person, encourage them to let go of their old life and to move on to the next one. It can be reassuring even just to talk to the dead person and at some level to know that they are probably receiving your message. The mind of the deceased person at this stage can still be subtle and receptive.
“For the more adept practitioners there is also the method of transference of consciousness at the time of death (Tibetan: po-wa). With training, at the time of death, the practitioner can project his mind upwards from his heart centre through his crown directly to one of the Buddha pure realms, or at least to a higher rebirth. Someone who has perfected this training can also assist others at the time of death to project their mind to a good rebirth.”
It is said in the ancient scriptures that there are nine gates through which one can depart but the one most favoured and that which leads straight to some kind of a higher state is the departure through the crown. The yogis are known to draw the four lower breaths and merge it with the fifth one which is higher, and through a process of concentration release the whole thing through the crown. The Mother describes such a yogic departure while talking of X, (a well-known yogi in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) as to how he could pump out each bit of his consciousness and project it straight into union with the Divine Mother, a rare feat of heroism and yogic concentration!
“It is believed that if the consciousness leaves the body of the dead person through the crown or from a higher part of the body, it is likely to result in a good type of rebirth. Conversely, if the consciousness leaves from a lower part of the body this is likely to result in rebirth in one of the lower realms. For this reason, when a person dies it is believed that the first part of the body that should be touched is the crown. The crown is located about eight finger widths (of the person being measured) back from the (original) hairline. To rub or tap this area or gently pull the crown hair after a person dies is regarded as very beneficial and may well help the person to obtain a higher rebirth. There are special blessed pills (po-wa pills) that can be placed on the crown after death which also facilitates this process.
“Once the consciousness has left the body (which, as mentioned earlier, can take up to three days) it doesn’t matter how the body is disposed of or handled (including the carrying out of a post-mortem examination) because in effect it has just become an empty shell. However, if the body is disposed off before the consciousness has left, this will obviously be very disturbing for the person who is going through the final stages of psychological dissolution.”
Here also the emphasis is on ‘once the consciousness leaves the body’. That is the crucial event. In other words, life and death are not like a switch on and switch off phenomenon. That may be our sensory view but it is not the truth of things. There is an interval when the person is neither fully dead nor fully living. It is here that there is a role of both outer and inner human interventions. Beyond this it lies in the hands of spiritual and occult adepts who have mastered these domains.
“This raises the question of whether or not it is advisable to donate one’s organs after dying. The usual answer given by the Tibetan lamas to this question is that if the wish to donate one’s organs is done with the motivation of compassion, then any disturbance to the death process that this may cause is far outweighed by the positive karma that one is creating by this act of giving. It is another way in which one can die with a positive and compassionate mind.
“A Tibetan tradition which is becoming more popular in the West is to get part of the remains of the deceased (e.g. ashes, hair, nails) blessed and then put into statues, tsa-tsas (Buddha images made of clay or plaster) or stupas (reliquary monuments representing the Buddha’s body, speech and mind). These stupas for instance could be kept in the person’s home, larger ones could be erected in a memorial garden. Making offerings to these or circumambulating them and so on is regarded as highly meritorious, both for the person who has died and for the loved ones.”
The significance of relics of highly evolved persons is of course well-known. The body parts, or even the objects used and handled by such great yogis and mahatmas hold the vibrations and imprints of that Consciousness and can, if received with faith and receptivity impart it to those who worship them. Whether such a thing will be applicable to any other less meritorious or less evolved person is however suspect. In certain instances it may even be harmful for both by attracting to the earth forces of a lower order if that is what the person represented in his lifetime. The sword of a tyrant and oppressive king and the sword of a hero raised to protect the weak and oppressed obviously carry very different imprints. While our ordinary humanity cannot make out the difference, a yogi by feeling the sword will know its inner history and the type of psychological forces that used it.
The Kingdom Within
There is a kingdom of the spirit’s ease.
It is not in this helpless swirl of thought,
Foam from the world-sea or spray-whisper caught,
With which we build mind’s shifting symmetries,
Nor in life’s stuff of passionate unease,
Nor the heart’s unsure emotions frailty wrought
Nor trivial clipped sense-joys soon led to nought,
Nor in this body’s solid transiences.
Wider behind than the vast universe
Our spirit scans the drama and the stir,
A peace, a light, an ecstasy, a power
Waiting at the end of blindness and the curse
That veils it from its ignorant minister
The grandeur of its free eternal hour.
Meditations of Mandavya
I will not faint, O God. There is the thirst,
And thirst supposes water somewhere. Yes,
But in this life we may not ever find;
Old nature sits a phantom by the way,
Old passions may forbid, old doubts return.
Then are there other lives here or beyond
To satisfy us? I will persist, O Lord.
 Mamma is the Hindi term for a mother.
 Mother India, Nov. 1974 as noted in ‘The Mother: Past-Present-Future’ by Amal Kiran, pp. 106-107.
 Tlemcen is a place in Algeria where the Mother spent some time discovering the deepest occult secrets and mysteries of life and death.