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End-of-life doulas Emily Bootle, left, and Megan Sheldon stand outside KORU Cremation, Burial, Ceremony in Vancouver.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Women are improving the way we die in Canada.

Megan Sheldon became an end-of-life doula, someone who provides non-medical care to the dead, the dying and their families, after what she describes as a “grief storm.” It was a time when a close family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness and she and her husband had experienced multiple pregnancy losses.

She needed a way to process her grief, but there wasn’t anything for what she found out is called “invisible loss” – meaning grief that comes from loss outside of the death of a loved one. Eventually, that would prompt her to found her business, Be Ceremonial, which allows clients to custom design ceremonies to honour any loss.

Ms. Sheldon lives her life with the idea that unless we learn to live with death, we will never be properly prepared. “I’m raising two young kids and they’ve already faced death in their lives, so I’m trying to make death part of a regular conversation instead of something that is so far away we just keep ignoring it.”

‘Big Funeral’ brings in big profits

In Western culture we are taught to be afraid of death, that it’s something cold and dirty and something to be removed from our lives. People outsource the process of death to funeral homes, forgetting that only a few generations ago people died at home and their bodies were tended to by loved ones.

Death has also been turned into a multi-billion-dollar business in recent decades. Dubbed “Big Funeral” by U.S. media, the American death industry now pulls in more than US$20-billion per year with multinational conglomerates, like Service Corporation International, owning tens of thousands of funeral homes throughout the states.

We have a smaller death care sector in Canada, with the industry generating about $2-billion a year and without the same multinational market share. But what is the same is the general process of death care: a loved one passes, they are sent to a funeral home, and then to a cemetery.

“It is a system that hides our dead and moves it out of the public view for a number of different, likely cultural, reasons,” says Emily Bootle, an end-of-life doula, licensed funeral director and partner at a deathcare business in Vancouver called KORU Cremation, Burial, Ceremony. “But I think now we’re saying, ‘Is this what’s in everyone’s best interest?’ and then deciding that it could be different and asking for it to be different.”

Slowing down the burial process

There is no formal training for end-of-life doulas (sometimes called death doulas) in Canada. In fact, a decade ago this profession was only recognized as a philosophical approach to death with just a handful of practitioners across the country. It has now ballooned into a movement, with formal associations boasting hundreds of members and post-secondary training courses on offer.

One of the ways Ms. Bootle helps her clients is to recognize that there is no rush when someone dies. The bodies of the deceased do not need to be taken away to a funeral home immediately. In fact, they don’t need to go at all. And being embalmed is also not a requirement. Families can wash and dress the bodies and even keep the person at home for days if they choose. This can all be done at home or in a setting like KORU where there is a designated bathing room set up to wash and dress the body.

“I’m always amazed by what people are willing and able to do and how healing it can be,” she says.

For Ms. Bootle, it’s about providing people with the choice of how they wish to leave this life and how they wish to say good-bye to their loved ones. But like any business, if people want this choice there needs to be more demand. Ms. Bootle believes that the on-going opioid crisis in British Columbia is creating that tipping point.

“There are a lot more bereaved moms and they are speaking up about what they want,” she adds.

A growing vocation

There are definite signs that demand for this kind of death care is increasing. Douglas College in New Westminster. B.C. offers end-of-life doula training, while The Institute for Traditional Medicine in Toronto offers the Contemplative End of Life Care program. There are also hospice and healthcare associations across the country that are providing retreats or programming in this kind of training, says Sue Phillips, vice-president of the The End of Life Doula Association of Canada.

The association was started in 2016 and since then has gained more than 500 members, mostly women, “but inclusive to anyone that wants to provide this kind of care,” Ms. Phillips says.

“I’m just so proud of the progress we’ve made in changing the death care landscape with our efforts to educate, advocate and empower people and their circles of care.”

An end-of life doula herself, Ms. Phillips says, “We are there to hold space for you and get you what you need. Because you are the expert in your own death.”

Support and collaboration

The work these women do is emotional, mental and physical, but the challenge remains in being recognized for this work and compensated accordingly, explains Ms. Sheldon.

“It is disproportionately women [doing this work] and the challenge from a feminist perspective is that it’s often requested as free labour,” she says. “So you have a huge amount of women trying to make a living at this and people are resistant to pay for it.”

As a group, these professionals are banding together to not only educate the public about what they do, but also show that having choices in death is worth the money.

“We live in a capitalist society, so women learning how to advocate for themselves and turn this into a business has been a challenge,” says Ms. Sheldon. “[That is] why I think having this movement of us finding each other and supporting each other is really amazing because we’re looking at the work that needs to be done and we’re not trying to race to the top.”

Adds Ms. Sheldon: “It’s completely collaborative, and we need to stick together.”

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