The sound was eerily melodic, smooth and soothing. The voices were in unison. The singers encircled the person who was practicing dying. The voices were soft, sweet and relaxing. As I listened, tears ran down my cheeks.
The Threshold Singers of DC showed participants what it was like to be comforted by music when one is on the brink between living and dying. Their demonstration was part of the inaugural session of Historic Congressional Cemetery’s (HCC) year-long residency for Laura Lyster-Mensh, a death doula.
“I want to bring courage, curiosity and a sense of humor to dying which all humans will experience,” said Lyster-Mensh. “Each Saturday I’ll be doing things that may help people make the end of one’s life easier for all involved.”
The songs sung by the Singers triggered tearful memories of sitting by the bedsides of both my mother and my aunt. How I wish they had had the comfort of relaxing music that would have made their transition easier. How I wish I had had a death doula to help support me in making decisions at the end of their lives.
What is a Death Doula?
Death doulas are trained, non-clinical supporters of dying people and their families. They offer support with telling one’s life story, planning for death and vigil at the end of life. Death doulas also promote death education and conversation as Lyster-Mensh is doing with her residency. She has training in the death process and coping with death.
Jackie Spainhour, HCC president, wanted to involve the community in programming that could help people feel more comfortable talking about and experiencing death and dying. “We wanted to do more in-depth death programs,” she said. “But we are a small staff. Laura, who was a volunteer at the cemetery, filled a void for us.”
Lyster-Mensh, writer, podcaster and activist, was the perfect person to lead this effort. She is a certified death doula and a volunteer for a DC hospice. She said she fell in love with HCC when she began volunteering and presented Spainhour with a proposal for a death doula residency. Almost 60 participants showed up for the inaugural session in January.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the dying process and the ceremony of it,” said participant Rachel Smith. “My grandfather was in hospice and I admired what they did. I would like to do something similar without the medical training and knowledge.” When I asked another participant, Diane De Bernardo, what death positivity means to her, she said, “It means not being afraid of dying. It’s a part of life, the circle of life. Our society is doing everything to prolong life even at the loss of the quality of life.”
An HCC board member attended a Saturday session. She told Spainhour that it changed her outlook on death. She thought the session would be morbid and was surprised to discover it was nothing like she imagined.
Death Doula Sessions
Lyster-Mensh has topics planned for her weekly sessions on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. They are posted a month in advance on the HCC website. She plans to show participants how to do practical things such as preserving their digital world, or how to write their own obituary. She also plans on bringing in guest speakers and asking participants to share their experiences. “I think a lot of people think that they won’t die if they don’t do anything,” she said. “I find that fear surrounding death can be lessened if a dialogue and some planning is started.”
Another trained death doula on Capitol Hill, Liz Gregg, who is director of care services at Capitol Hill Village (CHV) loves having a death doula in residence at HCC. “The first session was great,” she said. “At CHV I want to create opportunities to build and plan how members want to live and how they want to die. I also want to enrich our partnership between CHV and HCC.” Gregg, who is an end-of-life social worker, will be offering Death Cafes at HCC.
Death doula days are less formal than Death Cafes, according to Lyster-Mensh. Death Cafes, which have been held in 83 countries since 2011, have a format. Death doula days are more flexible. They have to do more with having conversations about mortality and practical things surrounding that, she said. “I encourage people to arrange affairs, write down wishes for the end of life. It’s more doing and not just talking. It’s also light-hearted.”
Death Doula Days are just one of the ways that Historic Congressional Cemetery promotes death positivity. The events are free, but you need to register on the HCC website at www.historicalcongressionalcemetery.org.
Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional and journalist who has been writing her column for more than 25 years. She focuses on non-traditional ways to stay healthy, get fit and get well. Please email her with questions or column suggestions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.