What is the last sound you will hear?

It’s nice to think that there will be a choir of singing angels to welcome us as we enter our ever-afterlife. But the truth is it is much more likely for us to meet an earthbound angel as we approach our end of life, thanks to the increased interest of late in music thanatology.

Thana-what?

Thanatology is the study of death. Musical thanatology, however, is a palliative practice, the practice of bedside vigil with voice and harp, addressing the music to the physiological needs of the patient. The music and singing create a shift in atmosphere in a patient’s room, and can alleviate labored breathing, agitation and the like. Certified thanatologists go through two years of study, comprising personal, musical, physical and clinical studies, so that they are sufficiently trained to be highly skilled bedside companions—who also create music.

“I’ve been called an angel more times than I care to admit,” wrote music thanatologist Jennifer L. Hollis in an essay on her work in the The New York Times:

“As I sit at my harp, I am invited to witness profound and tender gestures of human connection. The families I meet show me what it means to let go of life and of the ones we love. Adult children tell their fathers how much they mean to them. Men reach for the hand of a spouse. Daughters close their eyes and lay their heads on their mothers’ beds. Again and again, I hear these words: “It’s all right. We love you. You can go.”

Hollis writes that in the 20 years that she has been traveling from hospital to hospice with her harp in tow—her first harp, she made herself from a kit—people can’t help but pepper her with questions about her harp, her work, and, ultimately, about death.

She writes: “It takes a special kind of person to do what you do,” they say. “I could never be around that kind of suffering all the time.” But they are wrong. I’m not around suffering all the time. I’m around love.

To read her piece in its entirety in the New York Times, click here.