There was a time, not so long ago, that death was a natural part of living, and the dying came home to live out their end days. Family and loved ones were not only capable of managing the needs of their dying, but most of all, they were willing. We’re now seeing a reclaiming of these traditions through the midwifery movement.
Death midwifery is also known by various terms such as thanadoulas, death doulas, and end of life coaches. Whatever the name, it’s about embracing a holistic, deeply ecological model where relationship building through dying is the most important aspect. It’s a re-engagement with dying, death care and grief, and empowering and inspiring communities to reclaim death care by participating in it as much as they are able.
My first experience as a death midwife was in 1997. At that time, I was called a palliative care provider. My patient, Kate was very close friend of mine who knew she was dying and requested to die in her own home just outside of Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Kate didn’t leave any stone unturned in terms of her dying wishes and death care. She asked a friend to build her casket. Kate designed her own six foot stained glass and cement headstone.
I did night duty with Kate for about the last two months or so of her life. On Saturday, May 24th, 1997, I recognized that death was very close so we called in some close friends to sit and do vigil.
Kate died at 7 p.m.. Her doctor came to pronounce her dead and sign a medical certificate of death.
A friend and I spent that night with Kate’s body. The next morning I organized a few women friends to come and help wash her at sunrise. It was a beautiful experience using infused sage water to wash her body, give her a little hair shampoo and spritz her with the aromatic rose water. We dressed her in her favourite dress and then carried her to her casket.
We held vigil for the next 30 hours where friends came to dance, sing, read poetry and sit in meditation with the closed casket. She had requested to remain home while we held her service at the local United Church.
After the service, we borrowed a huge old station wagon which we used as our hearse; we drove the three kilometer dirt road to Starr’s Point Cemetery where we were greeted at the gates by the community which had lined up in two rows in order to receive the casket from the pall bearers. Everyone touched and helped move Kate’s casket with loving care to her grave.
The burial ceremony was one of music and song, sweet grass smudge, and beautiful words. Flowers were placed one-by-one on her casket after it had been lowered. Fortunately, there were a few shovels at the cemetery, and myself and 4 other women gently filled in the grave. Then we all went back to her home to celebrate.
Written by Rayne Johnson, Death Midwife, http://tearcups.com/about/