Choir offers gentle, loving support to the dying

The first time Leslie Botko heard Atlanta’s threshold choir sing, she declared: “there are angels in the building.

“That’s what I felt,” said Botko, Trinity Hospice Care of Georgia’s volunteer services manager.

Members of the choir were warming up. They were preparing to quietly enter a room, set up chairs at the foot and sides of the bed, and sing in soft, almost lullaby voices to a person transitioning from life to death.

About 200 threshold choirs have sprung up in the past 22 years in Georgia and other parts of the country and world. They sing for free, have no religious affiliation, and have only one creed. They believe all people deserve to be treated with kindness from their first breath to their last.

Atlanta’s choir, Voices of Love TC, has been singing at the bedside of the area’s dying for 12 years, minus a two-year hiatus due to safety concerns during the pandemic.

“It takes away the need for words or doing anything,” said Susan Patterson, the choir’s leader. “It’s a way to be with people in this very important transition that offers them some support for the hard work they are doing.”

The idea for these choirs came from Kate Munger, a woman living in California. She was cleaning the house, bringing meals, and trying to do all she could in 1990 for a friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS. But she felt anxious when the time came to sit by his bedside.

“She started to sing – mainly to comfort herself,” Patterson said. “But she noticed as she was sitting with him that he too began to relax, so she kept singing and singing.”

Munger saw the power of using sound to “fill the space.”

Atlanta’s choir is all female, sings without musical accompaniment, and is singularly focused on the dying person, whether it is someone in the hospital, hospice, nursing home, assisted living or at home.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

An all-female choir limits “the range and richness of sound so that it is easier for the listener,” Patterson said. She said the choir members sing in harmony or sometimes in unison. The songs have been specially written to appeal to a person transitioning from life to death. They are usually very short, with repetition conducive to rest and comfort.

“We don’t want to sing anything that’s familiar that might potentially trigger a reaction. It might make them very sad,” Patterson said. “We just don’t know.”

New singers aren’t required to audition. But there is an expectation that each singer can carry a tune and have a certain level of vocal skills that will blend well with others and bring kindness and comfort.

Atlanta’s choir has worked regularly with Botko and Trinity Hospice Care of Georgia.

“Until you sit in on one of their visits with [a dying person], it’s hard to imagine how amazing they are,” Botko said. “It’s magical, really magical.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Some of the people they visit are alert and listening, even tapping their feet under their bedding. Some are not.

Botko said some have tears streaming down their faces.

“They’re not upset,” she said. “They are in a world of joy, although, honestly, we don’t always know. This is an intense situation. These people are transitioning.”

Family members are welcome to be there and can struggle to find the words to describe what the choir’s singing has meant.

“I hardly know what words to use that would express the degree of gratitude and honor we all felt,” said one woman who was with her dying sister as the choir sang. “The experience was beautiful and angelic.”

Another wrote the choir: “Momma just passed. Thank you for sending her to the angels with such beautiful music.”

Rose Watkins, one of the choir’s original members, said she’s glad to be able to use her joy of singing to help others.

“It’s just kind of a way of saying, ‘We’re here with you, giving whatever comfort and support we can,” she said. “And just like a mirror, it reflects right back on us.”

Choir members also personally know the comfort that can come from song.

“At rehearsals, we frequently sing for each other and the particular hardships that any one of us may be facing,” Patterson said. “It’s a beautiful circle of support for the singers as well as those we sing for.”


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COVID-19 was a curveball for Atlanta’s Threshold Choir, comprised mainly of women with full-time jobs. Members held their twice-monthly rehearsals via Zoom for a year and a half and could not sing at all during that time. Patterson said they lost a few singers but have now gained a few and are up to nine. But they’re currently looking for more members so they can respond to more requests, she said.

To learn more about the Threshold Choir movement, go to thresholdchoir.org.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a member of the Atlanta chapter, go to thresholdchoir.org/Voices_of_Love