Rites of Passage: The Revival of the End of Life DoulaOct 29, 2020 11:48AM ● By Wendy Fachon
As members interacting often with palliative and hospice care teams, death doulas are available to assist dying people in fulfilling their end-of-life wishes as well as a home vigil and even a green (natural) burial. A death doula is a person that assists in the dying process, much like a birthing midwife or doula.
Through most of history, women have handled the affairs of the deceased, particularly in tasks related to cleansing the deceased and caring for details of the home vigil. The Civil War ushered in the rise of the funeral industry and embalming practices to preserve soldiers’ bodies when transported long distances home, and women were pushed out of this practice. Today, in the U.S., there is a resurgence of home vigils, and the green burial movement is resurrecting the practitioner role of the death doula. More recently, there are various certification courses preparing more women once again, to step into this role.
Death doulas seek to reduce the fear and distress of death by guiding families in recognizing death as a natural and important sacred transformational process. Death midwives promote family-led, home-based care and empower families to take back the responsibility and personal privilege of bathing, dressing and mourning loved ones in the privacy of their own homes. They also advise about alternatives to standard cremation or embalming, such as green or natural burial. Because there are many steps involved in following state and health regulations and guidelines, such as transportation permits for one, often a funeral director is also employed in a partial role to assist with some aspects.
Practitioners perform many services, including death planning and budgeting. As a psychologist, non-denominational lay minister, death doula assistant, hospice volunteer and volunteer board member with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Rhode Island, Ann Porto, PsyD, connects people with artisans and craftsmen that make natural shrouds and green burial caskets. She also provides the special service of anointing the body with sacred oils, preparing the environment with sage and prayer as part of a home vigil ritual to cleanse and honor the dying or deceased, if that is what was wished by the individual prior to their death. She explains, “I have used essential oils such as frankincense, myrrh and spikenard, as these oils have been used and documented in various rituals in many cultures and in the bible as part of a last rite practice. These oils have a nice woodsy fragrance and have many other sacred properties. After praying over the oils, I apply them to the soles of the feet, to the top of the head, and over the third eye, throat and heart after cleansing and prior to dressing or shrouding.”
A student of and teacher of consciousness training and meditation over many years, Porto is keenly aware of the preciousness of each breath. Having taught programs in death and dying, she has a great understanding of and sensitivity to end-of-life issues. Having conducted mental status evaluations and neuropsychology assessments in nursing homes and assisted living centers over many years, she is familiar with the stories of dying people. These include sensing the comforting presence of loved ones in spirit visiting in the room and many other precious stories. “The most important thing for someone at the end of their life,” says Porto, “is to have peace of mind when they die. It is an honor and a privilege for me to guide and support that process.”
Working with many cultures, the death doula is necessarily flexible in her role. She may assist as part of a team in hospice with non-medical care or in funeral home settings, monitoring that all final wishes are respected. She often fills in gaps not covered by these services, or she provides information about alternative options that may not currently be offered by traditional services providers and cemetery planners. Death doulas are available to perform many services, including practical, psychological and spiritual support before and after death. They may help prepare the body for the home vigil and/or attend to family and friends during the vigil. They may help plan funeral services, memorial services and life celebrations, as well as guide mourners in their rights and responsibilities. For individuals and families unaffiliated with any specific religion, death doulas seek to understand the needs and provide guidance to suit the situation.
Learn more by reaching out to Dr. Ann Porto at Sacred Soul Journs located in the East Greenwich area. Call 401-529-2020 for a free half-hour consult or visit SacredSoulJourns.com.
Wendy Fachon is a writer for Dreamvision 7 Radio Network’s Sustainable Living News and host of Story Walking Radio Hour at StoryWalking.com. Visit her website programs page to access her archives and download the podcast Leaving a Greener Legacy, co-produced with Dr. Porto. See ad on page 25.