We are surrounded by music; immersed; soaked in it. It's in our heads when we jog, when we drive, when we shop, when we go up elevators, when we watch sports, when we watch films, when we work. Music is a part of life, and yet we only notice it sometimes.
Music is also a part of death and dying, and there it is very noticeable, because it says a great deal about who we are as individuals and as a culture.
I noticed this for the first time as a child while singing with our school's choir at a nursing home. We were greeted with septic odours, slouching, slobbering, slurred speech, loneliness, and a lack of joy. These senses formed my first impression of long-term care homes. My walk into the common room of St. Lawrence Lodge as a six year old was a frightening experience. I remember fearing the people in the room who, while old like my grandparents, exhibited none of the warmth that I expected from the elderly. It only made matters worse that there were cheery attendants and nurses moving confidently from person to person and speaking—sometimes shouting to overcome deafness—to residents in the same pedantic way that a parent would speak to a petulant young child.
But that sad impression was not the most lasting one. The impression that remains with me to this day came as our choir sang some old gospel hymns. The mood in the room went from sedated to soulful by the time we were through the first line of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. It's difficult for me to describe the change in the room. Those who were despondent suddenly sang with gusto. Those who might otherwise find it difficult to shuffle their feet were suddenly bouncing their knees. The chorus moved from one of children's' voices to those of both the old and the young. And only the young had hymn books. It was clear that the rest of the room was singing from a place deep in the memory vaults unaffected by dementia. That place brought music, and that music brought life.
These memories came to mind this week when I came across a post from Comment author Aaron Belz about an old man in a nursing home in the US. It's beautiful and is exactly what happened all those years ago at the lodge:
The doctor in the video says it well. "Henry is restored to himself" through the music. "He remembers who he is." And who is Henry? Who were those old people singing with me at the lodge? "The Lord came to me, made me holy, I'm a holy man."
Does the music we listen to give us life? I wonder. I won't suggest that hymns are the only music that can give us life. Cab Calloway can do it too, and so can Cohen. But does the musical landscape of our day—the type of music we hum when we're in the shower, the type that surrounds us and that drips down deep into the recesses of our mind—give us life? A world in which gospel hymns and jazz were ubiquitous meant that a room of elderly came to life singing songs about love, dancing, and Jesus. What type of music will bring life to people my age and younger when we're slobbering and slouching? I'm not sure; I'm not even certain that churches do a good job of immersing their parishioners in music that "makes us holy" these days.
But I could be wrong. What kind of music will you sing as you die?