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The Pioneering Work of Death Doulas

Once, we were all death doulas. Deep down, we still are.

Before the Civil War, when embalming fallen soldiers to preserve them long enough to transport back home prompted the birth of the funeral industry in the U.S., we were all death doulas. I would argue that we still are. We’ve just forgotten our deeply rooted practice of connecting to the death process with all its power and mystery, and our intrinsic desire to hold close to our hearts the biophysical destiny of every living being.

Death doulas are keenly aware of our fundamental need to acknowledge the transitory nature of being human and serve as essential guides and compassionate advocates supporting individuals and families navigating end-of-life challenges. They often raise awareness about the environmental impact of conventional burial practices and empower others to make informed death care decisions that align with their values. In my view, they are death pioneers who are bravely supporting and shepherding into being the social and environmental movements that aim to change the way people think and talk about death and dying.

The Role of Death Doulas

While their roles may vary, death doulas, also known as end-of-life doulas, death midwives, or death companions, offer non-medical holistic care and emotional, spiritual, and practical support throughout the end-of-life planning stages, during the dying process itself, and at burial services.

According to Abby Ellin in a piece published in the New York Times, a death doula’s role when interacting with a dying person could involve “sitting vigil with them in their last hours, giving hand massages, making snacks. Or it could be months or even years earlier, after someone receives a terminal diagnosis, keeping them company, listening to their life stories or helping them craft autobiographies.” Indeed, death doulas can serve as benevolent guides and companions during a time in our lives when we might feel the most overcome by confusion and fear of the unknown.

Education and Communication

Death doulas are perhaps, first and foremost, educators. They organize and guide public conversations about death, dying, and natural burial, encouraging open dialogue in compassionate spaces where others may share knowledge and experiences. These enriching conversations often take place at Death Café events as well as Death over Dinner, and Death over Drafts gatherings.

As skilled communicators, death doulas facilitate family discussions about end-of-life wishes, advance care planning, and funeral arrangements, and they offer a compassionate presence and attentive ear in times of emotional turbulence and loss. By creating an open, empathetic, and non-judgmental space for asking questions, death doulas assist individuals and families as they navigate the complex emotions surrounding death and dying. Death doulas are the teachers we may not want or think we need, but actually do.

Community Building

Community connections are essential during times of loss. As team players and collaborators, death doulas foster support networks for those navigating the often overwhelming process of sifting through end-of-life questions and options. They serve as informed advocates, consulting with hospice staff, funeral homes, green cemeteries, and other professionals to support the wishes of the deceased and their loved ones.

Through building supportive communities, death doulas have made significant contributions to the growth of the home funeral and natural burial movements by being the illuminating link between what we know about conventional deathcare and what is possible to make body disposition more personal and environmentally sustainable. Their community connections impart agency and resources to families who want to fully embrace the opportunity to take care of their own when a loved one dies.

Ritual Support

Natural burial services encourage the inclusion of personalized rituals that align with the character, values, and beliefs of the person who has died. Death doulas ensure these meaningful rituals are successfully implemented during the burial service and are equipped with creative ideas and suggestions for people who are seeking expressive ways to say goodbye to their loved one.

Scattering seeds, planting trees, and placing feathers, painted stones, and fresh-cut flowers around and inside the grave are common. These rituals not only honor the deceased but also strengthen our connections with the environment and reinforce the understanding that life and death are part of a natural cycle that we all share.

Rituals can take many forms and are contingent upon the preferences, beliefs, and customs of the people involved. They can include religious or spiritual ceremonies, prayers, readings, music, symbols, or actions that have meaning for those who are experiencing grief. What’s most important is that the funeral rituals are authentic and meaningful for those who participate in them. Death doulas can help support the performance and implementation of these rituals with great care and reverence.

Death Doula Training

The heart and soul of a death doula’s mission is to empower families to have a more positive and meaningful experience of death. Fueled by this principle, death doula training and certification programs have experienced a palpable increase in popularity in recent years. Many organizations provide resources for education and professional support for doulas and those seeking more information about the important work of a death doula. As the popularity of natural burial and home funerals continues to grow, it is becoming more widely understood that our dependence on a funeral home is an option, not a requirement.

When we think about the time, love, and energy that goes into preparing for a birth, we know that preparing for a death deserves the same unconditional love and commitment. End-of-life doulas continue to play a crucial role in changing the culture surrounding death and dying, and many doulas are playing a pivotal role in educating and guiding individuals toward more sustainable end-of-life choices.

But these doulas are not only changing death culture for the dying, they are changing all of us at the most fundamental level of our being. They are transforming our perception of death from a taboo and traumatic event into a natural and sacred part of life. They invite us to reclaim our role in the caretaking process, inspire us to live more fully and authentically, and motivate us to appreciate the brevity and preciousness of our human experience.

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