Health

What Does It Mean To Die Well?

Death doulas, death cafes and end-of-life planning are all part of a movement of death wellness and “death positivity,” which aims to normalize the conversation around death and dying.

A bed floating in the sky with a cloud hovering above it, representing death wellness

(Photo: Getty Images)

On June 25, 2020, the day Mark Huddleston chose to undergo his medically assisted death, the sunshine along the Eagle River was unlike the past week of rain. Huddleston was at his cabin in Hearthstone Village, a cohousing community just south of Powell River, B.C. He and his wife, Jacqueline, spent their last evening together drifting in and out of sleep, having an elusive conversation about the afterlife. Huddleston said if there was a way he could communicate with Jacqueline, he would try to do so—perhaps a whisper in the ear, or a graze on her forehead.

Huddleston, 68, had spent the past eight years living with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Confronting his death—and finding meaning in it—came through his own research in grief and dying, and the comfort he found in the teachings of Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian cultural activist and author of Die Wise: A Manifesto For Sanity and Soul. In early 2014, Huddleston attended one of Jenkinson’s workshops on the dysfunction of a “death illiterate” culture and how dying well can be learned. According to Jenkinson, society has a long way to go when it comes to confronting the certainty of death, and we can use our deathbeds as a way to teach our children about the natural cycle of life. The death bed, then, becomes a place of gratitude for life.

Inspired by Jenkinson’s teachings, coupled with friends’ and families’ past traumas from sudden deaths, Huddleston decided to invite people to a “crossing over” ceremony where they could say goodbye, offering the experience as a potential roadmap to healing.

Friends carried Huddleston on a stretcher, down a moss-lined path leading to a hospital bed set up by the Eagle River. It’s the same river by Huddleson’s cabin where he and Jacqueline used to set up camp, catching rainbow trout in the glacier water so many afternoons prior. With about 50 people in attendance, loved ones said their goodbyes, read him poetry, played the violin and wept.

Huddleston did his best to comfort their grief, offering a few jokes to ease any distress. After the doctor in attendance administered a few drugs to Huddleston through an IV, he laid to rest under piles of flowers—pink dogwood, rhododendron and sword ferns people had placed on his lap that afternoon. Jacqueline would later see those flowers on her walks alone and be reminded of her husband, their lives together and his last moments.

“It was a good death,” says Jacqueline as we spoke over a Zoom call last summer, adding that Huddleston’s ceremony completely changed her perception around dying. “I hope I get to die that way.”

The Huddlestons’ ceremony is reflective of a growing movement of death wellness, or “death positivity,” which aims to normalize the conversation around death and dying. After all, people plan extensively for milestones in their lives including marriage, career and parenthood, and yet the certainty of death doesn’t regard the same care. In 2019, the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute named death wellness as an emerging trend, predicting a rise in green burials, more grief support in the workplace and the use of psychedelics during end-of-life care. Alongside death cafes, death doulas and end-of-life planning—all part of the death wellness movement—many Canadians are working to change their perceptions about what death and dying should look like.

“Everything around dying is getting radically rethought—from making the experience more humane to mourning and funerals getting reimagined,” notes the GWI report. Other experts say, however, that death wellness is something that aims to bring us back to our roots, rather than something new that has emerged.

In her 2015 book, Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell Us About Life and Living, medical-humanities historian Brandy Schillace writes that the death positivity movement is “a desire to reclaim ground that has been lost—particularly in the West—during a century and a half of sanitization and silence.” Medical breakthroughs in the past century and the development of better health care facilities has given people the impression that we have “endlessly fixable bodies,” says Schillace.

We no longer see death as a certainty but something to be conquered, she says. Death, then, becomes a failure when you can no longer outrun it or prolong your lifespan. “We’re in full-scale denial of death.”

It was not long ago when widespread disease and plagues meant death was a much more familiar and public affair. The sick would most likely die at home, cared for by their community. Friends and family could see how death takes hold physically in the deterioration of the body. They would wash the dead body, dress it and prepare it for burial.

In her book, Schillace writes of ritual and mourning practices in different cultures, such as Tibetan Buddhist sky burials, where bodies are dismembered and left at a site to be consumed by vultures, or the Wari, who live in the rainforests of Brazil and primarily disposed of their dead through cannibalism until as late as the 1960s. For the Toraja of Sulewesi, Indonesia, dead bodies are embalmed, cared for and stored until a funeral can be paid for. Every three years they hold a ritual called Ma’Nene, where bodies are dug up, dressed in new clothing, paraded around the village and reburied. These rituals are rooted in core cultural beliefs that pay the highest respect to the dead and the community they were a part of. Death and dying in these contexts are as much part of our natural cycles as life and living.

For Jacqueline, storing Huddleston’s body for two days before taking him to be cremated due to the funeral home’s operating hours made all the difference for her grief. In the morning, she turned on Huddleston’s favourite talk radio show, brushed his hair and dressed him. Friends came over to help move Huddleston from a homemade stretcher into a cedar coffin built by a community member. After closing the lid and moving him into a van, Jacqueline drove him to the funeral home. She was the person to push the button to start the cremation chamber. As she sat outside and watched the smoke billowing above, she smiled and thought of his favourite movie, Smoke Signals. “There was meaning in every part of [his death],” Jacqueline says.

As Canadians and people worldwide have felt the emotional effects of COVID-19—where many families could not even see their dying loved ones in hospitals or in long-term care homes—we’ve been forced to acknowledge the fragility of life and our own mortality. In a 2020 survey by conservation memorial company Better Place Forests, 51 percent of respondents said they were thinking about their mortality more because of the pandemic. “One of the things I think we’re greeting with COVID is a loss of illusion,” says Schillace, “this illusion that we are safe and can plan for tomorrow.”

As a death doula, Sue Phillips regularly facilitates conversations about end-of-life matters. Phillips, who is based in Hamilton, Ont., is the vice president of the End of Life Doula Association of Canada and has been a practicing death doula for the past two years. She offers services such as legacy planning—a project where you can communicate your life story to friends and family, such as a photo book with captions, letters or a music playlist—and funeral planning, speaking to family members about her clients’ end-of-life wishes. Studies have shown that when a person’s funeral is planned prior to their death, family members have more space to consider their own grief.

Rather than directing or coaching someone on what their last days should consist of, she walks the path with them, offering practical, emotional and spiritual support along the way. This could look anything like preparing a meal, helping them write letters or offering a space to talk about some fond memories. Death doulas can offer their work voluntarily, but most charge a rate of $25 an hour or more. Stepping into this role can take place a few days before someone dies or even years before, when someone receives a terminal diagnosis. “Death is not one event,” says Phillips.

Phillips had been happily retired from a public school administration role before stumbling upon an end-of-life doula course at Douglas College in Vancouver. She immediately registered, reflecting on the death of a younger family member years ago as a driving force. In the program Phillips learned about topics such as vigil support, religious beliefs surrounding death and dying, creating advanced care plans (plans for health and medical care you would consent to during end-of-life care) and coping mechanisms.

Blythe Vincent, the program assistant in the continuing education health sciences department at Douglas College, says students who take the course come from all backgrounds of study. The interest in the course had been extensive from the start and continues to increase. “Many people who take the course refer to it as a calling,” says Vincent. For Phillips, she describes it as her “soul work,” the most rewarding job she’s ever had, and has even opted to take additional thanatology courses (the study of death) through Toronto’s Centennial College. Pursuing this education and work has helped her confront her own experiences with loss. “There’s a calmness about my thoughts around grief and death and dying,” says Phillips. “Ritual is important and deserves as much beauty and care…as the beginning of life.”

Chrystal Toop, an Omàmiwininì (Algonquin) from Pikwàkanagàn First Nation and the founder of Blackbird Medicines, is also a death doula, or a “life spectrum doula,” as she calls herself, having first been trained as a birth doula. Being an Indigenous life spectrum doula can oftentimes resemble crisis work, she says, considering the colonization of Indigenous communities, the generational trauma of residential schools—where unmarked gravesites continue to be discovered—and the amassed missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“So many of the people that come to me have layered experiences with death, loss and grief,” she says. Culturally specific spaces like the one she runs can prove paramount for communities who are experiencing insurmountable loss. In situations where someone is missing or murdered, family members can benefit from a space more nuanced than a general grief support group. One woman who was referred to Blackbird Medicines, a grassroots collective of First Nations caregivers and community builders, was grappling with the murder of her son. Organizers supported her by transporting her to a court trial and taking her outside for prayer and grounding exercises.

Toop and Phillips both run death cafe support groups, where people can meet up at their local coffee shop, or even online, to unpack their feelings around death and grief. Topics are open to the floor, and both women act as moderators. Sometimes Toop will use something called a “death deck,” which resembles something like a board game or Cards Against Humanity, to inspire conversation. Each card poses a multiple-choice or open-ended question, such as, “If you could send one post-death message from beyond, what would you tell your family?”

Other events and apps make light of the topic of death, such as the WeCroak app, which sends users death-related quotes sporadically throughout the day to remind them of their finite lives. The app is based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times a day.

Approaching death from a more practical standpoint, the SafeBeyond app helps users plan your own funeral. Tech has also seen the advancement of the Metaverse, including the creation of digital graveyards, where virtual memorials can be a reminder of our loved ones. Green burials, which don’t involve any chemicals (like when embalming) or concrete, have also gained more appeal over the years, as people become more conscious of their environmental impact.

Though we don’t choose how we die, death wellness or death positivity can be a bridge for those seeking more meaning in death, and ultimately in life. Still, Schillace struggles with the term “death positive,” considering death is not a positive experience for most of us. “It’s a breaking experience,” she says. “So I feel like we have to be conscious of that. And be careful. Because there are so many people who are fragile, deeply fragile, and to tell them just to be positive about death is maybe not the best means of helping.”

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.
FILED UNDER: