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Spiritual seekers seek till the very end of life, demonstrated a recent New York Times piece about the friendships between "spiritual but not religious" hospice patients and their chaplains. As hospice care has become an affordable, dignifying end-of-life choice in recent decades (the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization says that 38 percent of deaths last year were in hospice) the demand for hospice chaplains has boomed. The Association of Professional Chaplains reports a 50 percent jump in the last 10 years of the number of U.S. hospice chaplains.

Chaplaincy culture has changed, too. What was once a field of ordained clergy is now filled by many who see it more as social work than a divine calling.

No matter chaplains' motives, the benefit of spiritual support in the last days is undeniable, something the medical community plainly recognizes. Serving alongside nurses, counselors, and home health aides, chaplains "are the patient's advocate," says Phil Kenyon, an Illinois resident taking chaplaincy training at Vitas, a national accreditation program. "You are showing a dying person dignity and love that in some cases, they may never have received in their lives."

The patient's requests may be anything from prayer to chats about God, to chats about anything but God, to confession, to simply having a hand held. Other patients may not even know someone is there; oftentimes it's the family making requests on their behalf. (Families stand at the center of the hospice-care model, as relational comfort is one proven way to stave off depression and further ailments.) Whatever the spiritual needs, it's always the patient seeking the chaplain, not the other way around.

Sadly, the hospice patients requesting a chaplain's ...

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