‘It Takes a Village to Die Well’

Death midwife seeks to reclaim death as relational, 'soul' experience

Richard Griebel died last spring in rural Alberta in the home he had been born in, on the land his parents had homesteaded. His family honoured his desire to have a set of end-of-life rituals that would be most meaningful to him and his loved ones. Above, family and close friends carry his body to an honoured place on his land, a large rock that has become a monument of family connection. There, they undertook a ceremony to release his spirit from his body. To read Richard's full story, click here. (Photo: Andrew Walsh)

Richard Griebel died last spring in rural Alberta in the home he had been born in, on the land his parents had homesteaded. His family honoured his desire to have a set of end-of-life rituals that would be most meaningful to him and his loved ones. Above, family and close friends carry his body to an honoured place on his land, a large rock that has become a monument of family connection. There, they undertook a ceremony to release his spirit from his body. To read Richard’s full story, click here. (Photo: Andrew Walsh)

Death midwife and ceremonialist Sarah Kerr has been receiving so many calls from people captivated by her work that she’s launching a holistic death network for Calgary and area.

Though some are hesitant to admit it, people are feeling drawn to use their gifts to help create a more meaningful experience for a dying person and his/her loved ones and community.

A podiatrist trained in shamanism and reiki, for example, wants to provide energy medicine foot care visits to those in palliative care at home.

A photographer shares her dream of capturing the meaningful moments of families as their loved one is dying.

Sarah Kerr (Photo: Julie Kerr)

Sarah Kerr (Photo: Julie Kerr)

“I’ve had so many people call to say, ‘I’m embarrassed to say this, but I kind of like death; I want to be around it, is that wrong?” Sarah says.

There’s a growing interest around the world in creating new cultural forms around death. People sense the emptiness in what have come to be traditional approaches to death, those centring the experience on medical and technological intervention and one last gorge on “stuff” — larger bouquets, flashier hearses, bigger tombstones.

There is a yearning to return to honouring and recognizing the sacred, the invisible, the subtle.

Death midwifery is one manifestation of this shift.

As a death midwife, Sarah facilitates an experience intended to help the dying and his/her loved ones be more present, connected and supported through the end-of-life experience.

Just as birth midwives have been reclaiming the birth process as a natural, family-centred life moment, death midwifery arises from the view that death should be a relational soul experience for the dying and family, friends and community.

“We don’t know how to talk about death,” Sarah points out. “People don’t know how to say what needs to be said — I love you, this is what you mean to me, I’m sorry, please forgive me.

“Just to be with someone when they are dying, we don’t know how to do that.

“So the dying person feels isolated and the family often feels isolated.”

Sarah works mostly with people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. They have a strong sense that this is a spiritual journey but they don’t have a set of rituals and established community structure that is meaningful to them. This is what she seeks to introduce.

“There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I really think that it takes a village to die well,” Sarah says.

Death midwifery is just one possible role in this new-old work of a more holistic approach to death. Sarah sees a whole collection of other possibilities — of community economic development possibilities, really.

As just one small example, she’s trying to find a retired shop teacher with a therapeutic bent who has a workshop in his garage and would be available when someone dies to support family members to build a coffin with their own hands.

Rural Alberta resident Richard Griebel was honoured by his family with a set of rituals that included releasing his spirit from his body in an outdoor ceremony on his land. Above, he is surrounded by meaningful items crafted and gathered by his family, including the "prairie canoe" on which he lies. (Photo: Andrew Walsh)

Rural Alberta resident Richard Griebel was honoured by his family with a set of rituals that included releasing his spirit from his body in an outdoor ceremony on his land. Above, he is surrounded by meaningful items crafted and gathered by his family, including the “prairie canoe” on which he lies. (Photo: Andrew Walsh)

Given the calls she’s receiving, clearly other people are seeing similar possibilities.

Hence the Calgary and Area Holistic Death Network.

“The idea is to create an organizing space to build a new culture of death in Calgary, to really make us a demonstration community for how death can be done differently,” Sarah says of the network.

A lifetime activist steeped in knowledge and experience of community organizing, she is pinning her hopes on this new culture unfolding through an emergent, bottom-up organizing kind of model.

“I have no interest in committees. We’re not trying to make any decisions together,” she says.

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“It’s creating a conversational space where people can come with their projects and their ideas and find other people who are jazzed by these projects and ideas to get those projects supported.”

The important thing will be to preserve a certain spirit as these alternative cultural forms take shape — to ensure sight is never lost that this work is about making room for the spiritual, sacred, subtle and invisible.

“We have to make sure that is at the heart of everything we do, it’s about the soul,” Sarah says.

“We have to make sure we’re always aligning to the intangible.

“It’s not about making more stuff or having fancier stuff. It’s about what’s meaningful.”

A first meeting of the Calgary and Area Holistic Death Network was held in November with a turnout of about 25 people. Another is scheduled for Jan. 20.

To learn more and get involved, click here.

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