Why are we so scared of death?

There is a quiet, serene revo­lu­tion go­ing on in the way we farewell our loved ones. Caro­line Baum meets the women, known as Death Doulas, who pre­pare the way for the fi­nal jour­ney with em­pa­thy and love.


When Ge­or­gia Zweep learned her 12-yearold daugh­ter, Mar­got, had only weeks to live as a re­sult of ter­mi­nal brain can­cer, she turned to a stranger to help her pre­pare for the worst. “I wanted to know what the rules were about dy­ing at home,” Ge­or­gia says, “as that was Mar­got’s wish and I knew I’d be too pre­oc­cu­pied with my grief to be able to think clearly. I also didn’t want any­thing cor­po­rate, re­li­gious or for­mu­laic.”

In­stead, she called Vic­to­ria Spence, a Syd­ney-based cel­e­brant who has gained a rep­u­ta­tion for con­duct­ing highly in­di­vid­ual funeral cer­e­monies and help­ing the fam­i­lies of the dy­ing through ev­ery stage of their loss.

Vic­to­ria is at the van­guard of a grow­ing trend: women who have ded­i­cated them­selves to of­fer­ing us a dif­fer­ent way of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing death. Of­ten de­scribed as “Death Doulas” (gen­er­ally trans­lated as “mid­wife”), th­ese women con­sider their role as more of a vo­ca­tion than a ca­reer.

They are part of a quiet revo­lu­tion that’s reached Aus­tralia from the

UK, Canada and US, where at­ti­tudes to death have seen a grad­ual shift to­wards greater aware­ness and choice. You could say that death is get­ting a makeover – or a re­birth.

Vic­to­ria, 52, brings her ex­per­tise from a back­ground in the­atre to her work, while stay­ing out of the spot­light. “My role is to make ev­ery­one feel calm, safe and able to ex­press what­ever emo­tions they need to share,” she says. To meet Vic­to­ria is to ex­pe­ri­ence her seren­ity – she ra­di­ates an ex­cep­tion­ally calm fo­cus. “She was car­ing and gen­tle ev­ery step of the way,” says Ge­or­gia. “Vic­to­ria pro­vided a buf­fer be­tween us and the funeral home she chose to work with, which matched her sen­si­tiv­ity. It was a very in­tense re­la­tion­ship, made more so be­cause it was for a child. She even went to Mar­got’s school and talked to her year about what was hap­pen­ing, to help them un­der­stand.”

Be­hind the scenes, Vic­to­ria, a sin­gle mother, has been a mover and shaker in the emer­gence of the Death Doula move­ment for more than a decade. Like many who pur­sue this path, she was search­ing for al­ter­na­tives af­ter her own bad per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

“My fa­ther died when I was 26,” she says. “The funeral was a de­ba­cle. There was no view­ing and the cel­e­brant got his name wrong. My grand­mother died a month later, her life re­duced to garbage bags all bun­dled up too quickly. It made griev­ing so hard, there was noth­ing to hold onto. Then, eight years later, when Mum died, we did it right and I was able to heal.”

To­day, Vic­to­ria, who has a de­gree in Death, Dy­ing and Pal­lia­tive Care, is in high de­mand, charg­ing an hourly rate of $150 for a con­sul­ta­tion and $1800 for a full funeral cer­e­mony, which can in­clude or­gan­is­ing all the lo­gis­tics and help­ing fam­ily and friends to craft and de­liver a eu­logy. There is no set pat­tern to the num­ber of hours a client may re­quire, with Vic­to­ria es­ti­mat­ing her ser­vices can take be­tween 12 and 40 hours, de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and the need for fol­low-up care.

Ini­tially, she is of­ten called to the bed­side of clients to dis­cuss their wishes and fears. “Moth­ers and the very young are the hard­est,” she says, hav­ing con­ducted rites for chil­dren killed in tragic cir­cum­stances.

“Some­times I have to be able to con­tain the grief of an en­tire com­mu­nity that’s been trau­ma­tised,” she says, “or cope with com­plex fam­ily dy­nam­ics. No mat­ter how

vi­o­lent or up­set­ting the cir­cum­stances, my be­lief is al­ways that be­ing in­formed and in­volved is heal­ing, whereas de­nial is not.

“I can help map how it will play out, what the op­tions are at ev­ery stage, from help with ac­cess­ing care to de­sign­ing a funeral. I also pro­vide fam­ily fol­low-up – you don’t just walk away from the priv­i­lege of peo­ple giv­ing you their trust.”

Part of her mis­sion is to de­mys­tify dy­ing. “I’m there to re­move the ta­boo when it comes to ques­tions like,

‘How long can I keep a body in my home be­fore it smells?’” says Vic­to­ria, mat­ter-of-factly. In a move that shocked many, in­clud­ing pil­lars of the funeral in­dus­try, eight years ago she im­ported cool­ing plates for home view­ings. Peo­ple were ini­tially hes­i­tant, but the plates have be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. “They’re great for fam­ily vig­ils. At first, I was do­ing about five a year, now it’s about 30.”

Vic­to­ria sees her role as help­ing re­con­nect clients with long-lost wis­dom. “My grand­mother knew how to lay some­one out,” she says. “In the 20th century, we for­got more about dy­ing than any other time. We have a short-term mem­ory that’s erad­i­cated pro­found an­cient knowl­edge. I want to help un­cover that again.”

She has also had men­tors who have helped her re­fine her skills. One is Zenith Vi­rago, 60, re­garded by many as a tribal elder of the Death Doula com­mu­nity. Versed in the rites of In­dige­nous cul­tures around the world, Zenith cheer­fully de­scribes her­self as a hip­pie les­bian. It’s no sur­prise she lives at the epi­cen­tre of al­ter­na­tive cul­ture in By­ron Bay, NSW, where she has taught and prac­tised a holis­tic aware­ness of death for 20 years. Like Vic­to­ria, she has a gift for be­ing ut­terly present, as if she has time only for you.

Zenith’s busi­ness card, if she had one, would de­scribe her as a death­walker, ac­com­pa­ny­ing the dy­ing on their jour­ney. It’s a prac­tice she teaches through the Nat­u­ral Death Care Cen­tre, which runs pub­lic work­shops across Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

Death has been a part of Zenith’s life since child­hood, when she played among the head­stones in the south Lon­don ceme­tery where her grand­fa­ther was the chief gravedig­ger.

“Then, in my 20s, I saw AIDS, a plague that came from sex and love, dec­i­mate many of the young gay men I was liv­ing with,” she says. “I stud­ied Bud­dhism, which has a lot to teach us about dy­ing and also about be­ing present. I was 36 the first time I went to iden­tify a friend’s body and saw her life leave her phys­i­cal be­ing like a vapour. I vol­un­teered to con­duct the funeral for her hus­band. Af­ter­wards, I ex­pe­ri­enced a kind of eupho­ria and re­alised that this was my call­ing.”

De­spite all the New Age woo-woo that in­evitably finds its way into con­ver­sa­tions about al­ter­na­tive ways of fac­ing death, Zenith is re­fresh­ingly di­rect.

“I’m not a carer, I don’t do the daily hands-on stuff,” she says. “My prac­tice is to help trans­form fear into ac­cep­tance. Some­times that means deal­ing with anger. I try not to feed neg­a­tive emo­tions. In­stead, I act as a cir­cuit-breaker if there is con­flict.”

Her forth­right opin­ions help to con­front the re­al­ity of just how far con­tem­po­rary society has drifted in its de­nial of death. “Our cul­ture kids us we’re for­ever young,” Zenith ex­plains. “We need to own our age to own our death. We talk about the loss of dig­nity when our body lets us down, but dig­nity isn’t a phys­i­cal con­di­tion.”

And don’t get her started on the way grief is ex­ploited as a source of prof­itable en­ter­prise. “It’s be­come an in­dus­try, as if know­ing that some­one is suf­fer­ing and is worse off than our­selves makes us feel more alive.”

Most of Zenith’s clients are women, who seem to have a greater open­ness to the mys­tery of death, per­haps be­cause of their ex­pe­ri­ence as life­givers. Many have lost chil­dren. Many want to par­tic­i­pate ac­tively in dy­ing.

“They’d like the choice to be con­scious and refuse mor­phine,” Zenith says, “but that’s just an­other form of pres­sure, like the ex­pec­ta­tion all moth­ers should choose a nat­u­ral birth and refuse epidu­rals. If I were in se­vere pain, I’d take any­thing that helped. There’s no right or wrong way.”

“I saw her life leave her phys­i­cal be­ing like a vapour. ”

While Vic­to­ria and Zenith are ex­perts, Imo­gen Bailey is a novice Death Doula. She started her train­ing at the Aus­tralian Doula Col­lege.

Like Vic­to­ria, she has a back­ground in per­for­mance as an ac­tor – she starred on Neigh­bours – and model. She also has a fear­less cu­rios­ity about hu­man na­ture, as she demon­strated in the sec­ond se­ries of the con­tro­ver­sial SBS re­al­ity show Go Back Where You Came From, prompt­ing her to be­come in­volved in refugee ad­vo­cacy and em­bark on a pro­gram of per­sonal devel­op­ment that ex­plored ev­ery­thing from hard­core Vi­pas­sana med­i­ta­tion to ec­static dance and drumming.

“Be­ing sent to the most dan­ger­ous place on earth in Mogadishu [So­ma­lia, for the SBS show] was a real wake-up call,” says Imo­gen, 40. “It con­fronted me with death face-to-face.” Shortly af­ter her re­turn, Imo­gen met Re­nee Adair, the founder of the Aus­tralian Doula Col­lege, and be­gan to study how to as­sist at births and deaths. To­day, through her Hon­our­ing Heart web­site, she of­fers a range of work­shops, with an em­pha­sis on the quest for mean­ing.

There was an el­e­ment of per­sonal heal­ing to her mis­sion. “When my grand­mother died, she was spe­cific about what she wanted,” says Imo­gen. “Even though I was only 11, I was struck by how much eas­ier that made it for the fam­ily to cope.

“My un­cle took his own life in

2014 af­ter a bat­tle with can­cer and de­pres­sion. It made me re­alise how much we still keep death hid­den.”

Imo­gen has now as­sisted at three deaths un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a se­nior doula. “It starts with lis­ten­ing,” she says. “I might also mas­sage the hands, which can be re­lax­ing and make a per­son feel com­forted.

“Some­times all they want is help with choos­ing the mu­sic they want at their funeral or the free­dom to go in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion spir­i­tu­ally than their fam­ily. We’re not there to pro­vide med­i­cal ad­vice or in­ter­vene in treat­ment, but we can help clar­ify choices and op­tions. It’s dif­fer­ent ev­ery time, there’s no for­mula.”

While Imo­gen is less ex­pe­ri­enced than Vic­to­ria or Zenith, she shares their abil­ity to project em­pa­thy and con­cern. Even over cof­fee in a busy in­ner-city shop­ping mall, she seems able to ig­nore the bus­tle of shop­pers and the in­sis­tent beeps of her mo­bile phone. There is some­thing com­fort­ing and re­as­sur­ing about her pres­ence. She is an old soul in a young body.

For Ge­or­gia Zweep, hav­ing a Death Doula as­sist in her mo­ment of great­est sor­row was a de­ci­sion that has helped her to ac­cept her daugh­ter’s death more eas­ily. “It al­lowed me to re­frame the loss and gave me a solid foun­da­tion on which to build mem­o­ries, rather than be­ing left car­ry­ing around a deep wound. With the right help, you can come back from mourn­ing.”

LEFT: For­mer Neigh­bours star and novice Death Doula, Imo­gen Bailey. ABOVE: Zenith Vi­rago has prac­tised for 20 years.

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