The History of Hallowell

In a small house on a back road in southern Vermont, a woman is dying at home surrounded by her loving family. It is a winter evening in 2003, a few days before Dinah’s last, a group of friends from the community and her church, gather around her bed to sing. She joins in. She mouths the words when her voice fails her. She smiles and her eyes shine. As we sing around her, Dinah is held up by her loving husband Fred, a daughter on either side of her. We are held in deep respect and awe for being invited to share in Dinah’s dying process, to witness this kind of love, to stand so close to death and feel beauty and peace as we anoint her with song and are filled with grace in return.

This was the true beginning of Hallowell. The details don’t matter. We formed after two visits to Dinah Breunig’s bedside in her home, her family welcoming and present, during the final days of her life on earth.

Brattleboro Area Hospice helped to shape and form us through support and training. Kathy Leo, Dinah’s hospice volunteer, answered the request from Noree Ennis–the patient Care Coordinator at the time–to create and organize a “hospice choir” that would be available as a service to anyone who desired singing at the end of life as an offering of comfort. Peter Amidon and Mary Cay Brass agreed to serve as musical directors. Almost 40 singers signed up to be trained and taught how to sing at the bedside of a dying person. Little did we know at the time that as Hallowell grew and evolved, it would become a central “practice” in our lives, a way to learn how to live fully and with deep gratitude.

Since our inception in 2003, we have served hundreds of families in our community. We have also helped to launch a still growing number of hospice choirs throughout the New England region and across the country by teaching workshops, offering guidance and counsel and being available for continued support for developing hospice choirs. We are honored to be a strong model for the growing movement of the practice of bedside singing for the dying.