Thoughts on Death Midwifery, Training and Activism

January 29, 2019

The death midwifery and caregiving I’ve been doing over the last few decades, and more actively this last couple of years, is proving to be some of the most fulfilling work I have ever done in my life. This spring I will be taking the End-of-Life Doula Professional Certificate training through the University of Vermont. These intensive, comprehensive trainings are selling out fast. This is emergent work and my mind is delving deeply into our western culture politics, practices, myths and mysteries surrounding death.

There are two textbooks for the class that I’m really enjoying reading: Cultivating the Doula Heart: Essentials of Compassionate Care by Francesca Lynn Arnoldy (the main instructor for the course) and Robert E. Gramling and Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. The first book explains the difference between sympathy and empathy – and then says, “No!” to both! Intrigued? So was I! It’s a fast and brilliant read that translates well into skills for all relationships, not just those with the dying and their loved ones. The second book is a treasure trove of stories from two hospice nurses with over 20 years of experience in working with the dying.

I am also thoroughly enjoying this delightful author, mortician and death activist, Caitlin Doughty and her book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death wherein she writes about her visits in other cultures to experience their death practices, rituals and rites. Within just a few pages of this book, I was not only refilled with a deep desire and longing for drastic changes, I felt inspired to get involved in death activism with renewed vigor. For the most part, us westerners are so disconnected from the process, aided by the often sterile surroundings, we struggle to grasp or miss altogether the power, connection, grief processing, integration and even the beauty of these powerful transitions.

I’ve signed up for a newsletter to keep my fingers on the pulse about activism surrounding a new emerging death practice called Recomposition. This from their website: “Recompose offers an alternative choice to cremation and conventional burial methods, with a process called ‘recomposition.’ This natural process gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die.”

Of all the options out there, I’d love for my recomposed remains to land in your gardens, beloveds. I would love for my body to enrich your soil, help to grow your food and nourish your trees and bees. May we, as a culture, find our way forward in more powerful, integrated, holy death rites and sweet, earth-loving dispositions of our bodies.

There’s so much more to say, but for now, I “let the candles speak.”

Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
Enter barefoot
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
and floor.
You, congregation
of one
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
– Patricia McKernon Runkle

– Photo credit: Stefan Keller, Creative Commons