Why Death and Dying Guides Are The Next Big Thing (And Why You Should Care)

dying guides

It’s gotten to the point where explaining that the funeral industry is changing has become unnecessary… Just look at everything that’s going on; the advent of social media, the rising popularity of cremation, green burials, and so on. Another thing we’re seeing shift? The way that families respond to death.

According to Don Morris, M.Ed, a Victoria, BC death educator and end-of-life companion, “[families] are seeking sovereignty and self empowerment. They’re wanting to ‘ritually care’ for their own deceased and have lots of time to grieve in their presence.”

An interesting way to consider the change in attitudes towards death is to consider attitudes towards birth. Once upon a time, fathers were forbidden from entering the delivery room. Births took place at hospitals, they were clinical, and they were attended to only by doctors and nurses. Today, we’ve observed a resurgence in home births, in midwife-assisted deliveries, in doulas, and in birth centers. Partners are encouraged to be active participants and engage in the process. They’re no longer relegated to the waiting room.

For a lot of people, death has become a similar event. Some families aren’t looking to have death and dying hidden or sanitized. They want to be involved — to care for their loved one as they did during life. It’s a new direction that funeral service professionals need to be prepared for.

Enter the ‘Death-Carer’

The death-carer (also known as a death midwife, thanadoula, death doula, home funeral guide, etc.) is someone educated in a broad spectrum of end-of-life concerns, or who simply wants to care for a family member or friend throughout the end of their life. They help by witnessing, supporting, encouraging, and facilitating various aspects of the pan-death process.

So why do people want to include a death-carer as a part of their end-of-life journey? Don says, “many of us are wanting to ‘live’ our dying and leave this world with as little baggage as possible. Someone with applicable life experience, education, the right nature and skill sets has the potential to make someone’s dying more comfortable, meaningful, and more of an overall healing experience. They can also help reduce the stress those close in [the process] are experiencing.”

According to Don, growing numbers of people are quite interested in ‘death-caring,’ which might include “conscious dying and after-death, home-based body care rituals that reflect who they are, what they want, as well as shift control back to them from funeral directors.” He says people are wanting to work with death-carers not only to maximize their end-of-life experience, but to know their body will be tenderly cared for by those who love them. They want their survivors (including their children) “to gain empowerment around death and dying in a culture where the opposite is true.”

Before Don got involved in the alternative deathcare movement, he had a successful career as a funeral director and a therapeutic counselor. He brought the Green Burial Council to Canada, opened Canada’s first Death Cafe, leads the Home Funeral Practicum, and is currently working collaboratively to create a national community for ‘death-caring.”

Don sees ‘death-caring people’ as not only “providing important emotional and spiritual support to the dying and their families and friends, yet also serving as educators and guides to those who want to care physically for a deceased inside a 1-3 day home funeral/vigil.” He is adamant that those who step into this arena have knowledge of disease conditions, practice universal health precautions and commit to obeying all statutes governing funeral service — specifically not charging for post-death body care. He believes going against existing laws would be counterproductive to this grassroots, alternative death-caring movement.

The Funeral Director and the ‘Death-Carer’

So how might funeral directors and ‘death-carers’ co-exist and profit? First, it’s good to think in terms of partnership — and a mutually beneficial one at that. Morris reminds us a death-carer is primarily a supporter and educator. They don’t take over the funeral director’s job.
“They’re there to provide comfort, support and guidance for the dying individual, their family and friends, and are best in their after-death role when allowing family and friends to do the work of cleansing, dressing, and laying out.” Funeral directors can benefit by offering their assistance to families already working with a death-carer in what Don recently coined a “‘hybrid’ home funeral vigil.”

What services might a funeral director offer? Helping families complete necessary paperwork. Certainly transporting the deceased to and from a home, or to some other site — e.g. a hall, religious institution, or retreat centre for a vigil and ceremony. There is providing temporary shelter/refrigeration if needed, coming to the home if the body needs to be moved or maneuvered, or help if it starts leaking or gassing up. And, of course, providing a casket or suitable cremation container (which people love to paint/personalize).

According to Don, “Death-carers enhance their reputation with funeral directors by getting the best, well-rounded funeral service-related education they possibly can.” It also comes about by showing respect and appreciation for licensed people and offering families the option a funeral director-assisted, hybrid home funeral. And he says “the opposite is true — a funeral director gains status with a death-carer when they provide whatever services a client desires, as long as it is legal, feasible and safe, and they act respectfully in all circumstances.” Both parties win when the shared context is providing the best possible service to a family.

How Does it Work?

An example of a funeral director working with a ‘death-carer’ might be something along the lines of first meeting with each other in a family conference, making a plan, then driving over to a nursing home in separate vehicles. Instead of doing the transfer themselves, the funeral director will be on hand to provide assistance, if required. Working in tandem with the death-carer, they will ascertain the family’s level of comfort and ensure that things run smoothly.

The ‘carer’ might ask the family if they would like to move their loved one’s body themselves or if they’d like to ride with the director to the funeral home first or go directly to the residence. If the family has chosen to bring their loved one home, the funeral director can help educate families on what to expect once the deceased has been brought home, and can help make arrangements to return once the home funeral vigil is complete. Morris points out that using the term ‘family-led home funeral vigil’ instead of ‘home funeral’ is helpful, especially as we experience this dynamic shift in end-of-life and death care.

While grassroots driven death-caring services are still very much in their infancy, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as a passing trend. People are beginning to challenge the conventions surrounding death and dying. They’re honouring the feelings that come at the end-of-life and are choosing to engage them rather than push them away. So how can funeral directors and ‘death-carers’ forge this new trail together? See if there are any individuals in your area that support the dying and also provide education on home funeral services, and set up a time to chat about how you can possibly collaborate with each other.

Explore some websites like Seven Ponds and Quality of Life Care to get a better understanding of what’s going on and how you can be a part of it. It might be something that’s a bit outside of your comfort zone but, like microbiologist and biogerontologist Cyntha Kenyon said, “I have always gotten a thrill, a kick, from learning new things.”

deathAbout The Author

Kate Walker, BA MA, is a copywriter at Basic Funerals and has an extensive background in funeral services. Having worked as a funeral director’s assistant, in bereavement counseling, and as a grief-support dog handler, she’s passionate about reaching families in whichever way suits them best.

Basic Funerals is a licensed funeral home in Ontario, Canada, offering simple, cost-effective services that can be arranged online, over the phone, or in person. Our goal is to create a fresh perspective in funeral services.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments.

  1. Theresa

    I am very interested in becoming a Death-Carer. How do I get started?

  2. Rilee Chastain

    Theresa, thanks for the comment! You can find more information about becoming an End of Life Doula at this link: http://www.inelda.org/

  3. Christy

    I’m interested in end of life doula. Live in canada. Can’t find any course here. I’ve been working at hospice for 9yrs. Do you no anycourses in Ontario at all
    Thanks Christy

  4. Rilee Chastain

    Hi Christy, it looks like there are some Death Doula training courses in Toronto: http://www.itmworld.org/
    There are also some in Ann Arbor, MI, if you are nearby the state border: http://afterdeathhomecare.com/event/death-doula-workshop/

    I would check out this website if you need further resources: http://www.cindea.ca/midwifery.html

  5. Deanna Cochran

    What a wonderful article! Thank you Kate for the shout out and Don, lovely representing our movement so articulately. This grassroots force is really growing and is respected as advocates for consumers and families. ♥ InJoy, Deanna, qualityoflifecare.com

  6. Kate Walker

    Thank YOU Deanna, for doing such amazing things. It’s true- this organic movement is gaining traction which is so uplifting. I anticipate lots of positive change as we move forward.
    Be well,

  7. perfecto facunla

    I am also interested in becoming Death-carer