Sharon Murfin, MA

Sharon Murfin, MA

The Role of Sound in the Care of the Dying

Background: Music-Thanatology

Music-thanatology unites music and medicine in end of life care.

A professional field within the broader sub-specialty of palliative care, its practitioners utilize harp and voice at the bedside to ease physical symptoms such as pain, restlessness, agitation, sleeplessness and labored breathing. Its practitioners provide prescriptive music by responding in the moment to the needs of the patient.

By observing vital signs such as heart rate, respiration and temperature, music-thanatologists provide music that is tailored to each specific situation. Music created in response to patient changes offers an atmosphere of serenity and comfort that can be profoundly soothing.

Music allows the patient to enter into the unbinding process of letting go in the individual patient's personal way.


We explore the profound resonance of musical feeling as sound reorganizes matter. We discuss and demonstrate its qualities of reverence and intimacy. We also discuss its relationship to image-making and its non-judgmental nature. We describe human needs along with a musical prescription to meet those needs.

The human being is an instrument of sound — we are the instrument. We use metaphors to describe our relationship to this internal physical arrangement — we “find” our voice, we “choke up” with emotion, we vent, whisper, murmur, utter prophecy and sing.

In the care of the dying over the thousands of music-thanatology vigils I have attended, voice has been primary. I will include music with voice and harp, and we may be sounding together occasionally in very quiet, simple ways, in order to experience sound and music in an embodied way.


Sharon Murfin is a musician, a teacher and a music-thanatologist. She was a member of the first class of music-thanatologists in Missoula, Montana, called and educated under the auspices of Therese Schroeder-Sheker, the founder of the Chalice of Repose Project school of music-thanatology and pioneer of the field. It was here, after the death of her brother and her father, that Sharon found language for and a profound connection to the perennial wisdom that knows music as medicine and as a continuing path of inner development. Sharon was invited to join the faculty over twenty years ago, for some years as Assistant Academic Dean, and has continued as faculty and as a clinical supervisor for the students of music-thanatology.

Sharon received her M.A. in Fine Arts with “Integrated Arts and Education Option” from the University of Montana Creative Pulse Program. This innovative program is designed to develop “master teachers” in part by challenging students to learn and participate through multiple artistic processes for teaching and learning. Her chosen thesis project entailed gathering a volunteer community chorus and instrumentalists to offer The Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) written by Paul Winter, with special guest Jim Scott.

One of her great joys has been teaching the schola cantorum (singing school), a daily discipline of Chalice of Repose students in Missoula, as well as concertizing with the schola, under the Artistic Direction of Therese Schroeder-Sheker, with guest artists such as Paul Winter, Glen Velez, Treasa O’Driscoll and others. This schola focus continues for the student residencies that now take place in Mt. Angel Oregon. Therese Schroeder-Sheker and Sharon, with other faculty, have planned and facilitated more than 90 weeklong teaching residencies in Oregon for Chalice of Repose students. Sharon has mentored, taught, and sung with every student that has come through the program since 1994.

The clinical work of music-thanatology has been a profound influence on Sharon over these many years. She has worked in major regional hospitals in Missoula and Spokane, working within palliative care teams, in nursing homes, and for hospice organizations urban and rural, residential and home based. She has attended thousands of vigils, and written of these vigils in unpublished vigil narratives as part of the discipline and practice of music-thanatology. Examples of these narratives and vigils have appeared in her two-part Explore article entitled “Building the Ship of Death”.