Final lullaby: Eventide Singers bring peace and comfort to the dying

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/6/2016 5:37:21 PM

She is in and out of consciousness, sleeping a lot. These are 95-year-old Esther Krebs’ last days. There are boxes of tissues at each side of the bed. Fresh flowers sit by the window. It’s spring time. Birds chirp outside.

“Mom, do you want to open your eyes and see who's here?” her daughter Marlynn Clayton asks, touching her mother’s hair. Her arm is draped around the pillow where her mother’s head rests.

A group of choral singers stand at the foot of her bed at The Arbors, an assisted living community in Greenfield. They tap their feet and start to sway while they sing songs about angels and green meadows.

Sitting by the side of the bed, Clayton smiles and mouths the words of the songs while looking lovingly at her mother. When the singers finish, Clayton says “Thank you. She’s sleeping, but I know she can hear.”

They sang Bobby McFerrin’s song, “The 23rd Psalm,” a song he dedicated to his mother. The group also sang The Consolers’ “May The Work I’ve Done Speak For Me.”

This is just one of many intimate moments touched by the voices of the Eventide Singers, a group of volunteers who sing to the dying, the ill, and the homebound.

They have sung to Krebs, with her daughter by her side, on three occasions. Her room is full of artifacts from a rich life. Paintings from world travels and family photos surround her during her last days.

The singers’ goal is to infuse the most difficult and trying moments in life with joy. They visit hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities throughout Franklin County to sing to the ailing and the dying.  

“I think music soothes them, calms them. Sometimes it reaches them when nothing else does. I think it can invoke memories. It’s amazing how many of them start to sing with us,” said Marilyn Berthelette, a member of the Eventide Singers group. “I think even the vibrations of the music can get through.”

The singers say they often see evidence that music is a healing force when the patient’s breathing slows down, their facial expressions change and sometimes the person’s eyes flicker. They know that even if a person is unable to communicate, they might still be conscious. Hearing, the singers say, is the last sense to go.

“You can see a real shift in breathing, an easing, a relaxing,” said Joe Toritto, the group’s musical director. He has been singing with the group for about eight years. He said every “sing” is different.

Sometimes the ailing person is alone. Sometimes they are surrounded by family. At least once, someone passed away while the group was singing. “We just kept singing as they were taking care of the body,” Toritto said.

Sometimes after they get a request to sing, they get an email informing them that the person has died before they arrive. In other instances, if the person is imminently dying, the group does an urgent sing with only a few hours notice.

“There are some people that say, ‘Isn’t that morbid?’ because as a culture we tend to shy away from talking about death,” said Amy Metzler-Clough, another singer. “But we are all going to get there.”

To prepare for a sing, they learn about the person’s life, who they were and what they valued. They learn the person’s current condition and pick songs. They are a nondenominational group and they sing for Christians, Jews and atheists.

The singers go wherever they are needed, singing about 60 times every year. Their songs are in more than eight languages and their mission is to provide joy through music in a person’s last days on this earth.

“It’s such a privilege to be part of that intimate time not only with the person dying, but with the family,” said Berthelette, a singer.

They rehearse their songs at least three times a month at the First Congregational Church on Silver Street and to join this choral group, there is an audition.

Once a member, there is a serious time commitment and the members are like a family. There are about nine sopranos, about seven altos, five bases and four tenors.

New members often must practice for months before they are able to join in and sing in front of a patient. The learning curve is huge, says Toritto.

Once they master and memorize nearly 60 songs in multiple languages, then they are allowed to perform. While the singers make the performances look easy, they have to balance both paying attention to the pitch and the lyrics, while trying to connect with the person who is ailing.

They all have their own reasons for volunteering, but most say that the music is healing, that they come away from the singing sessions with a sense of clarity and a new appreciation for life.

“I’m actually less afraid of death. I know that I will have a lot of friends singing to me,” said Metzler-Clough, a singer.

She has picked out her songs for when she comes to the end of her life. She said she is not looking forward to death, but she is looking forward to the songs.

To learn more about the Eventide Singers, visit or call 413-774-5828.

The Eventide Singers will hold its annual fundraising concert on Sunday at 3 p.m. in First Congregational Church, 43 Silver St. in Greenfield. The concert is open to the public and is free, but there is a suggested donation of $12 to $15.

The main focus of Eventide is singing in small groups to individuals that are confined to their beds for various reasons. Groups as small as three or four sing at bedsides for individuals in hospitals, care facilities or in private homes.

To request a sing or for more information, contact the singers at:


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