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Thanatologists are trying to recruit a new generation of people to the field

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Among the industries struggling to find workers - music thanatology. It's a rare occupation that uses music to comfort people who are dying. Katia Riddle reports from Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's been a rich life for Walt Nupen. He spent decades teaching U.S. history and government to high schoolers. He still adores his wife, Suzanne. Now, at 95 years old, his organs are starting to fail. He's in what's called comfort care. This last stage of life, he says, it's vulnerable.

WALT NUPEN: And I'm very susceptible to emotion and beauty.

RIDDLE: On this day, he's at Providence St. Vincent's Hospital. Two music thanatologists wheel harps into his room. Laura Moya is one.

LAURA MOYA: And we're just going to play a little bit of music for you.

RIDDLE: They set up at the foot of his hospital bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIDDLE: Nupen weeps silently as he listens.

MOYA: (Singing) We sing our love to you. We sing this love to you.

RIDDLE: Afterward, Nupen tells the musicians their concert was like falling snowflakes.

NUPEN: Snowflakes are beautiful, and they fall with such grace, as do your notes and your music.

RIDDLE: He says it's hard to explain his gratitude for them.

NUPEN: You don't know what joy you bring to me and I'm sure anybody else whose hearts have been touched by those strings.

MOYA: We were really responding to Walt's emotional state at that point.

RIDDLE: Music thanatologist Laura Moya says she thinks of the music as medicine. It was a kind of lullaby they played for Nupen.

MOYA: Who knows his understanding of the exact text, but he got the feeling.

RIDDLE: Music thanatology as a clinical practice has only been around for about 50 years. At least one study suggests it has meaningful benefits for patients. But these practitioners can be hard to come by.

JENNIFER BURROWS: There's not a lot of them around.

RIDDLE: Jennifer Burrows is the chief executive at this hospital. She says she'd like to hire a lot more music thanatologists. St. Vincent's is Catholic. Burrows says the musicians help to fulfill the spiritual part of their mission.

BURROWS: The skills they bring are an important part of how we foster wellness and in how we support people in their final moments on Earth.

RIDDLE: There are fewer than 100 music thanatologists in the entire country. Many are near retirement. That's why the group Music Thanatology Association International has started a new training program based in Oregon - Accorda Music-Thanatology Institute. It will be the only state-licensed program. Laura Moya says helping people die peacefully - it's a calling.

MOYA: We are hoping that younger people will be wanting to find that meaningful work.

RIDDLE: In fact, it's not unusual for people to die in the very moments Moya is playing her harp for them.

MOYA: I mean, it's such a privilege in that time frame because it's so intimate and it is so sacred.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIDDLE: Playing for someone in their last moments, it's a chance to give a final gift, she says, one she hopes a new generation of music thanatologists will be able to keep giving.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "FOUR DIMENSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle