Heaven Knows The Music of Dying

Heaven Knows The Music of Dying

Sheet Music
Photo by Rejesh Kavasseri

“Is dying painful?”

That was the question Sir William Osler asked in 1900. To find an answer, he launched himself into four years of systematic research.

Osler – a leading physician of his time and one of the four founding professors of John Hopkins Hospital – studied 486 patients and observed that only 90 of these  showed any evidence at all of pain or distress at the time of death.

In a lecture on Science and Immortality in 1909, he claimed: “the great majority gave no sign one way or the other. Like their birth, their death was a sleep and a forgetting.”

It is not known if Dr. Karlis Osis was aware of Osler’s research when he and his team launched a research project on behalf of the American Society for Psychical Research in the 1950’s. Even if they were, they were not particularly interested in that aspect of dying. Their aim was to investigate the psychic and – possibly – paranormal events which occurred as death approached.

“We were mainly looking for emerging trends and patterns which might throw light on the possibility of post-mortem survival,” Osis stated.

This team of intrepid psychologists designed a lengthy questionnaire and sent it to 10,000 general practitioners, hospital staff physicians, interns and nurses in the United States.

They received 640 responses – at least twice as many as expected. The responses detailed observations of 35,000 dying patients and provided 700 accounts of mood elevation, 900 pre-death visions, and 1,300 reports of what Osis termed ‘apparitions’.

However, they were surprised to discover an even more intriguing pattern emerging.

Assuming that as death approached, most people would be in a state of panic, they discovered precisely the opposite. There appeared to be little or no anxiety at the point of death!

Some respondents to Osis’ survey acknowledged that anxiety can initially play a part in the process. “Great anxiety building up for days,” wrote one doctor in the survey response, [but] “that usually disappears one to three hours before death.”

In his academic paper, Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses) Dr. Osis wrote … “Surprisingly enough, fear is not the dominant emotion in dying patients.”

Photo by Raimond Klavins

In fact, results indicated that many dying patients actually experienced elation or exaltation shortly before their death. “Their moods were so heightened in some cases,” Osis noted, “that the patient preferred to die into this kind of experience rather than to continue living without it.”

One doctor commented that with many of his dying patients, “there is such a resigned, peaceful, almost happy expression which comes over the patient, it is hard to explain but it leaves me with the feeling that I would not be afraid to die.”

“Apparently there is something,” Karlis Osis wrote in the 1950’s, “…which distinctly changes the dying person’s outlook on death.”

Something? What could possibly make a person elated as they approached death?

Aware that many near-death experiencers report hearing beautiful music as they died, I wondered if this was that “something” that relieved their anxiety. After all, it’s said that music soothes the soul.

In his best-selling book, Life After Life, Dr. Moody included a number of ‘musical’ deaths.

A man remembered hearing “what seemed to be bells tinkling, a long way off as if drifting through the wind,” adding that “they sounded like Japanese wind bells.”

One woman who nearly died from internal bleeding old Moody that at the moment she collapsed, she began to hear “music of some sort, a majestic, really beautiful sort of music.”

I returned to my library of near-death experience books and read them all again, searching for references to musical accompaniments.

I came across an old sailor in Norway who heard it. Resuscitated from the brink of death, he told the doctor: “It was all shining blue ocean and marvelous music.”

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki

Dorothy, who survived death while confined within an iron lung as a result of Polio heard it too. “Soothing, minor chord music came from an unseen orchestra,” she told Nurse Virginia Randall after being resuscitated.

On temporarily being returned to life, John from Philadelphia reported to Dr. Martin Sampson that he heard the most peaceful music all around him. “I knew I was dead,” John said, “but I wasn’t afraid. Then the music stopped, and you were leaning over me.” John died again soon afterwards and could not be revived.

In The Waiting World I read about one young woman who was visiting her dying grandmother. When she entered the room, it appeared that her beloved was gone, but her grandmother roused up and appeared quite annoyed because she was still in this life. She said she had already “seen over the wall” and announced that she had heard music, like “a great symphony of voices more lovely than earth could give.”

In the same book, I found a report by Dr. Sloan who attended 2-year-old Florence Repp. As Florence lay dying in her grandmother’s arms, she suddenly exclaimed “Mommom, moosic! Moosic! Don’t you hear the moosic?” “No dear, I didn’t hear any music replied the grandmother, but the girl didn’t want to miss hearing it. “Shush Mommom, moosic! They’re playing up there,” she said as she pointed upward. She died almost instantly.

Elizabeth Yates wrote about a friend’s description of his wife’s death the night before. “It was so beautiful,” he told her. “I was sitting beside her bed … when she turned to me and said “Can you hear it?”

“Hear what?” he asked. “The music,” she said, “The music, Listen!” Her face was aglow, her eyes were shining and she raised her head from the pillow as if to hear it better.

The woman’s husband was aware that the music was not for him, but he recognized what joy it was giving her by the light in her face.

“When her head slipped back on the pillow,” he recalled, “I would not have done anything to keep her from hearing that glorious music forever.


Sandy Coghlan worked in advertising and television in Australia and London prior to becoming an on-air director at a Melbourne TV station in 1979. Her first book, Travel Guide to Tasmania (Penguin) was commissioned by ‘Life. Be In It’ in 1984, while her articles on health and metaphysical subjects have been published nationally. From 1990 until retirement, Sandy qualified in a variety of alternative therapies, and in 1991, wrote and conducted a nutrition correspondence course for pharmacy assistants around Australia. She also taught creative writing and healing techniques at adult education centers. Sandy now lives with her partner Barry and their 2 cats in a bayside area of Victoria, Australia and is working on the second book in the Heaven Knows series.

You can read more of Sandy’s writing in a previous post from her about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross HERE.