Playing for the Dead

Sometimes I don’t arrive in time to play for the actively dying patients before they pass.  If the mortuary has not come yet, I may sit with the body in a low-lit room and play for the newly departed. My personal belief is that the newly dead remain in the former space for a short period of time. Like birth, the end of life transition from mortal to spiritual being can be traumatic and confusing, initially. I imagine the abrupt cessation of pain, gravity, and fear when the spirit finally releases the physical shell, combined with the impending launch into the light of unconditional love with the soul family and Creator, may cause some momentary resistance, at least for some.  So, I play for that spirit who may remain, encouraging it to take flight.  I play for the hospice staff and family members who remain in the room grieving their loss.  I play for the facility staff who clean and prepare the body for the mortuary to pick up and are mourning, as they complete this final service for a patient they have come to know and love.  This is a sacred space and time and I feel a responsibility to hold and preserve  that sacredness for just a bit longer with music if I can.

Rudy was a patient who was loved by everyone he met throughout his life. He came to America as a poor Russian immigrant when the Soviet bloc collapsed in the 1980s and he could leave Mother Russia. He brought his family with him including his wife and several small children and was a man who made friends wherever he went. According to one son, Rudy never forgot his old acquaintances while continuing to make new friends his entire life.  How he remembered all those people, their names, the details about their families and lives was a mystery to everyone, including Rudy’s own family.

Rudy’s final days were spent on hospice in an assisted care facility he had been living in for a while. Even before Rudy was admitted to hospice, I knew him. He had met me when I came to play for our hospice patients at the facility and we had spoken in the lobby while I tuned the harp and he was waiting for his daughter to come and visit.

When I first entered Rudy’s  room with the harp, he looked up and smiled. “Well, I guess it must be my time, the angel has come for me, now”, he said.  He remembered who I was from our prior brief meeting. I told him I hoped we would have many therapeutic music sessions together.  He just shrugged, leaned back in his wheelchair, closed his eyes and let the music envelop him.  We did get to have many sessions together but not as many as either of us would have liked. I remember him always smiling and welcoming me into his room even as his diminished health steadily declined.

I was unable to be there with him while he was actively dying but I was told he was surrounded by his loving family and friends. By the time I arrived at the facility to play for him, Rudy had passed and his family had left so I sat in his room with his body and played some of his favorite songs.  Soon the Nursing staff came in to prepare Rudy’s body for the mortuary.  I asked them if I could stay and continue playing while they worked.  The two Aides agreed although my request seem to surprise them. Both were tearful while they lovingly bathed Rudy and covered his body.  Rudy’s  departure would leave a large hole in the world for all the people whose lives he had touched.

When the mortuary came for Rudy, his body was carefully transferred to the gurney and his face covered with a drape.  A rose was placed on his body and the processional to the waiting van began with the hospice nurse, the 2 mortuary staff people, and the gurney with Rudy. The nursing assistants and I walked behind out to the waiting car. I believe Rudy’s spirit had already departed by then. I played only for his memory and for the people he had left behind to comfort us all in our grief.

I had been alerted through encrypted email that one of my favorite VA patients had passed after a long time on hospice. I had gotten to know Joe well during our sessions together as he did not suffer from dementia and loved music.  Usually welcoming and greeting me with a big smile, the last time I visited he asked me to leave as he just wanted to sleep. I knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer.

The next time I saw him, he had passed. He was still in his facility bed and room and his family wanted to provide a memorial for him there and dispense with a funeral service. They planned a bigger family and friend memorial much later in his home. Joe would be cremated. A rose was placed on his body and I sat next to the bed as far back as I could get in very tight quarters to accommodate family who wanted to say “Farewell” and touch him.  As they slowly filed in, I played hymns and music he had enjoyed.  Although no program had been formally planned, at one point a son began telling stories about his dad from a happier time.  In addition to being a kind, generous, adventurous man who loved the outdoors and his family, he had also been a Gin and Tonic drinker. Neat, no ice.  As the family stories began to unfold of trips to Moab and Lake Powell and skiing, there was equal laughter and tears. Everybody, including teenage grandchildren at the time, had been encouraged by Joe to join him in his favorite drink.  As they told it, mostly gin, little tonic, warm and disgusting but they drank with him anyway to please him.  And to honor him, an adult grandchild pulled out of his pocket a flask of gin and a small bottle of tonic water.  Paper cups were gathered and a toast was drunk to Joe, beloved husband, father, grandfather and friend. After everyone was done speaking I  played some more and stayed until the mortuary arrive.   I finished with You Raise Me Up, Wind Beneath My Wings, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  I waited outside the room while the mortuary transferred Joe to their guerney, draped his body with the American flag and began the processional out to the waiting van.

At this VA long term care facility, the dead are acknowledged and honored. As they are slowly moved out in a great processional with the nurse, chaplain and family following the departed, over the loudspeaker everyone in the building is informed of their passing, their military service and a recording of Taps is played. All who can, stand and either salute or place their hand over their heart until the veteran moves out the door.  All work and conversation that is not essential stops. It is a very moving experience just to be part of this loving and final tribute to people who selflessly served their country.


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Heidi Jaeger

Therapeutic Harpist (CTHP) and Advanced Reiki Practitioner (ARP) serving Northern Utah. Currently employed by Bristol Hospice and available for presentations, demonstrations and private consultations.

One thought on “Playing for the Dead”

  1. I also believe the pt is present after death. And also play after death… So glad to hear that you do too. Lovely writing about the sacred. We are so lucky to be able to live in these liminal places.

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