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Death DoulaWhether we’re facing the ends of our lives or we’re pondering our own mortality, it’s easy to feel vulnerable, uncertain, lost, or even afraid. Many people find that death isn’t an easy subject to discuss, and some cultures regard dying with fear and superstition. However, a new movement of empathetic, knowledgeable professionals is changing the trend. As they offer options, planning assistance, emotional support, and peace of mind, death doulas fill a much-needed role in modern society.

Historical Roots of the Death Doula

In a June 2017 Huffington Post article, writer Antonia Blumberg breaks down the recent rise of death doulas in the United States. The term “doula” is Greek and originally translates to “female servant,” but it was given new life in the early 1970s as people began providing midwifery services and support to individuals giving birth in their homes or other non-hospital settings. Blumberg explains that both the term and concept of personal care were borrowed from the birthing movement, with practitioners calling themselves terms such as death doulas, end-of-life doulas, death midwives and palliative care doulas.

Many death doulas are women, which isn’t surprising given the fact that women often cared for the dead and dying in many cultures. Splinter reporter Isha Aran discusses Suzanne Kelly’s 2015 book “Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth.” Aran points out that prior to industrialization, funerals were either held at home or in nearby houses of worship. In many cases, women in the deceased’s family handled the end-of-life arrangements. One example that comes to mind is Irish women washing and dressing bodies of their family members prior to their wakes.

Nevertheless, the invention of modern funerary practices during the Civil War era brought significant changes. As embalming, funeral homes and other trappings became monetized, Kelly argues that the funerary industry became increasingly more white and male-dominated. Licensing and training became prohibitively expensive for working class individuals and people of color. At the same time, Kelly also ties the current increase of female end-of-life supportive professionals to a return to in-home memorials and eco-friendly funerary practices, giving women a chance to reclaim both this vital knowledge and these important roles.

Demystifying Death and Providing Support

Death doulas can obtain their training and education from a wide variety of sources. For example, the International End of Life Doula Association offers its own classes and certification programs. Trained practitioners typically provide several services to help individuals prepare for the ends of their lives:

  • Crafting advanced care directives
  • Drafting and organizing a death plan
  • Creating and finalizing funeral arrangements
  • Arranging for disposal of the body

While end-of-life professionals deliver logistical assistance, people also rely on them for education, information, and emotional support. Alua Arthur, a California-based death doula, was recently featured in a video on Refinery29’s Facebook page as she detailed how she helps her clients. In her practice Going With Grace, Arthur provides end-of-life planning, death midwifery services, assistance to family members, and workshops. She described what she does as “energizing,” then added that she hopes to destigmatize death as a natural part of life through her work. “From working in death, I've learned that life is so precious, and even the pain is as pleasant as the joy,” Arthur revealed during a short interview in the video.

Death Doulas Answer a Vital Need

While death is often viewed as a morbid subject, it is a universal truth with which all humans must contend. Preparing for one’s own end is wise, but it involves meeting one’s logical and interpersonal needs. Those important areas are where death doulas excel, aiding individuals and their families in taking care of the physical and legal aspects of dying while helping them achieve a sense of peace.


Category: Funeral Loss

funeral grief

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