Death Midwifery and My Initiation into Sacred Duty

My great-grandmother Lourdes died two weeks ago, on the morning of November 1st. As I was falling asleep that night, my mother texted me to break the news. We briefly texted back and forth, and I agreed to send some money to help pay for the funeral; we are, in the end, a family of pragmatics. Afterward, I lay in bed for a few minutes, wide awake, so that her first words could sink into my bones. “Lola Lourdes died this morning.”

I never knew my great-grandmother. I met her when I was a baby, but after leaving the Philippines as a toddler, I never had an opportunity to go back. I often think about the complexity of having family you’ve never met (or don’t remember meeting). How is a person supposed to grieve for a relative who is more of a stranger to them than a loved one? How is a person supposed to mourn the loss of someone they never held close to their hearts?

The timing of Lola Lourdes’ death coincided almost perfectly with my trip to Philadelphia this past weekend. Ever since reading about death midwifery in Caitlin Doughty’s book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes a few years ago, I have looked for a chance at training and certification. As with all new movements, not many places or people offer death midwifery training. There is no nationally-recognized certification yet. Classes are expensive. But I was determined. Many things in my life have pointed me in the direction of death work, and neither expense nor infrequency of courses were going to stop me.

Luckily, circumstances changed. I met some people, sent some emails, and waited. Then, before I knew it, I was on the road to Philadelphia to attend the Earth Traditions intensive weekend certification course.

The Wyndham Hotel by the airport sits dwarfed next to its neighbor, the DoubleTree. When I arrived Friday morning, a few of the hotel’s clients still lingered by the tiny breakfast buffet. The Wyndham’s receptionist pointed me across the lobby to a nondescript door in the corner marked “Meeting Room.” As one of the first students to arrive, I picked my seat right across from Angie Buchanan, our teacher. My classmates filtered in afterward. Once all twelve of us settled into chairs, Angie talked about herself, then asked us to introduce ourselves to each other. Though we all have different motivations for taking the class, we (unsurprisingly) share the same inherent quality that sets us apart from other people.

We have no fear of death.

The class was nothing less than an initiation. We sat in a sacred space of our own creation, manifested by our shared goals and values, strengthened by the trust formed by exposing our vulnerable selves. We openly and reverently talked about our loved ones whom we lost. We laughed and cracked jokes. Some of us cried. We thanked each other for our bravery.

During our breaks, we chatted with each other, and we split off into smaller groups for lunch. I found myself arriving at the Wyndham early on Saturday and Sunday so I could eat breakfast with my classmates. On the morning of our exam, we quizzed each other over scrambled eggs and chocolate waffles. We added each other on Facebook and agreed to keep in touch. In just 30 hours, we all became friendly with and supportive of each other. Angie even said she would trust any of us with her body when she dies, and I could tell that meant more to many of us than we could have possibly anticipated.

Mourning bracelet and card.

Of course, our training involved practical and legal knowledge, too. I have a thick folder on my dining room table now, full of papers, including copies of Maryland’s advanced directive documents that I need to fill out and get notarized. I need to do many things now that I’m certified: I need to gather information on local funeral homes, put together a bag of death midwifery essentials, and memorize Maryland’s laws.

And then there are the things I want to do.

When Angie gave us our certificates, she wore her black clergy stole and anointed us with rosemary oil. She gave each of us some words of encouragement and wisdom that moved the deepest part of me, even when she wasn’t talking to me. And when she did turn to me, she said:

“There are not enough people doing the work you are doing. Keep doing it. It will bring you the most amazing experiences.”

I nearly cried right there. Of course, Angie has seen this website. She had commented on it during our email correspondence earlier this year. She knows what’s important to me. But there’s a difference between a stranger saying, “Keep it up” and the teacher you have come to greatly respect saying, “There are not enough people doing the work you are doing.”

When I first considered becoming a death midwife, I intended to use my training only for supporting friends and family. Recently, though, I’ve thought about volunteering at the local hospice. And now that I’ve taken the class, I am filled with a conviction I never had before. As Angie told us before giving us our certificates, death midwifery is a sacred duty. It is a calling. Not everyone can embrace death as easily as we have. Not everyone wants to help the dying and their families. But I can, and I do.

I have a lot to do in the coming days. Once my advance directive is in order, I will call the hospice to ask about volunteering. And I’ll call any local home funeral groups to ask about apprenticeship. And I’ll call local, privately-owned funeral homes to gather information about their services. I’ll make myself a death midwifery bag and read state laws. And in 2018, I’ll start planning for my first “death and tea” party, similar to a Death Café but in the privacy of my own home, with my friends as attendees. If that ends up being successful, I’ll keep doing it.

Four days after my great-grandmother died, I woke up at dawn and prepared the dining table for a personal ritual. I took the statue of the Lord of the Burial down from His shrine and put it in the center of the table, then ringed it with offerings, candles, and incense. Soft music played through my speakers as I settled into the chair across from Him. And then I let myself fall into into a meditative state. I practiced techniques developed at my friend Monika’s advanced workshop. Ten minutes later, I came out of the trance, feeling like I had done my duty — as a death worker — for Lola Lourdes’ spirit. I felt tears in my eyes, though they did not fall.

Anubis, the Lord of the Burial, and offerings.

Lola Lourdes now joins her husband on the ancestor shrine. I offer rice to them when I can and coffee when I can’t. And ever since the death midwifery course, I’ve been wearing the black mourning band around my wrist to represent my loss. I don’t grieve for Lola Lourdes; I cannot grieve for a woman I have never known. But I can mourn her, as I mourn the rest of my ancestors — even the ones who died hundreds of years ago, when the Spanish conquest was a fresh scar in everyone’s flesh.

I haven’t decided yet when I’ll remove the band from my wrist. A part of me imagines I will just know when the mourning period is over. Until then, it keeps my family and their long struggles in the fore of my mind. But it also serves as a reminder of my experience in Philadelphia, in that small meeting room of the Wyndham. It reminds me of the importance of networking together, of loving compassion, and of sacred duty.

My sacred duty.

I’ve been putting this off for so long, but now it’s time. Time to do the work.

One comment

  1. […] and death culture in the West. I even got involved in the death positive movement and became a certified death midwife in 2017. But no matter my intent, I could not put my training into practice like I wanted. I wanted […]

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