My friend Jeannie and I are at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in St. Paul, Minnesota.
One of the group’s founding members, Ysaye Barnwell, steps to center stage and sings what she calls her “death song.” It expresses a vision for how she wants her death to be. I don’t remember the details of it, just references to flight and a soaring melody carried by that rich voice of hers.
As we are leaving the concert hall, I turn to Jeannie and say, “I want to write my death song.” She replies, “Yes! Me, too!”
A few months later, Jeannie and I are sitting in my sun-drenched living room. We agree that her death song is finally finished. We’ve worked on it diligently, translating her thoughts and wishes about her good death into words and music. She’s nearly twenty years older than I am, so at that moment, it occurs to me that I would likely be singing this at her memorial service someday. When I her so, she quips – with that rascally grin of hers – “well, I certainly hope so!”
We teach the song to the Morning Star Singers – our local comfort choir – and go on to include it as the final song on the group’s CD.
A few years later, I am on my annual songwriting retreat. As I dig through my notes, I find a scrap of paper with “death song” scrawled on it. Oh, right! I never got around to writing my own version. And so I begin….
The song starts with singing, of course. And references a striking dream I had years ago where I was standing in the setting sun with thousands of people, all of us singing together in harmony. I woke up thinking, “Well, that’s my version of heaven!”
In the third verse, I include the lines, “When I die I’ll fall into a hammock woven of each song I’ve ever sung. I have sent them all forward to catch me on the day my life is done.” Even as I’m writing it, I find the metaphor of the hammock strange and beautiful. I wonder, “Where on earth did that come from?”
A few years later, I am sitting on the deck with my friend Karly Wahlin as she travels peacefully toward her death. After 27 years of struggling with multiple health challenges, she’s ready to let go. She hasn’t been able to get comfortable in her bed or any of the chairs in the house, so her parents have set her up in….a hammock.
I am holding her hand and singing whatever song occurs to me. Suddenly I’m singing her my death song. When the hammock verse comes around, I begin laughing and crying at the same time. I tell her story of that song – how that line seemed so strange as I wrote it, how it was a kind of prophecy for that moment on the deck with her. It was one of many precious moments of that sacred time with her.
Writing any song is a mysterious process. Writing these death songs opened the door to even deeper mysteries – ones that are still unfolding even now. “When I die, I know there’ll be singing…..”
Listen to Jeannie’s death song here.
Listen to my death song here.