PODCAST: The Resilient
Alua Arthur, Death Doula
My name is Alua Arthur and I am a certified death midwife, an end-of-life planner, and an attorney. I’m the co-founder of Going With Grace, which is an end-of-life planning company. We serve to support people as they answer the question, “What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may die peacefully?”
Death midwives do all of the non-medical support and care for the individual and for the family through the end of life, and then over to the other side. We also support people to have home funerals: to take care of their loved one at home after they’ve died. To have home funerals, wakes, to wash the body, clothe the body, care for it as they would a newborn baby.
The concept I believe is something that’s been around for time immemorial that has lost use in popular culture in today’s times, primarily because death has been overtaken by the funeral industry and by hospitals and people in black suits and white robes. No more the, generally, women that come into homes to support the family as a loved one is dying and support the person as they’re dying themselves.
Historically, it disappeared from use after World War II. There were so many bodies coming back from the War and there weren’t enough people to handle them. There was a lot of grief, first of all, and there was just such high volume of bodies coming back that the funeral industry really started to take off. People wanted to honor their sons and brothers who had fallen in the war, and the funeral industry found a way to grow. Made a lot of money during that time, and then it became pretty much commonplace for a funeral home to take care of somebody once they died.
Men have taken over the funeral industry, the business of death, but women are still doing the nurture of death if you have it.
I trained through an organization called Sacred Crossings with a magical woman named Olivia who has been doing this work a long time. It’s a three-part training. It starts with conscious dying where you ask yourself a bunch of tough questions about what you believe about death and how once people live in awareness of death, how that changes the way that they live, and also the way they die.
We write about how we want our final moments to be, what — once the moment of death actually happens — what we believe is happening and looking down on everyone else once our death has occurred. We look at life support issues, quality of life issues, hospitals. My definition of quality of life and quality of death, what quality of death means to me and also questions — well, ideas about not placing my own judgments and my belief system on other people in their tough moments. That’s the hardest of it, if you ask me. I have some pretty strong views about things, but I recognize that throughout my work that everybody comes to that place through a bunch of different paths and I get to respect everybody’s no matter how different from mine it may look.
After the first part — conscious dying — we move to after-death care of the body. In most states — especially in California at least — you can keep a person at home for as long as you want. Surprise, you can keep a person at home provided that they are taken care of. What we do is we place dry ice under the body, and as long as the dry ice is changed periodically the person can stay at home. I haven’t seen anybody that wanted to keep the body at home longer than three days. Maybe four. It takes about that time for everybody to get used to the fact that the soul, spirit is no longer in the body and at that point it’s just tissue and flesh. At that point people are generally ready to release the body, and thus they can go to the funeral home if they’re going to do a traditional funeral or crematory for a cremation.
There are little deaths happening all the time. I mean, my car battery dies, and we use the term so flippantly, but it does, and then we release from that one. There’s a big catastrophe when the car battery dies, maybe you’re parked at Vaughn’s and you have an appointment and now you can’t make it. How are you going to respond in that moment? Either I get so frustrated about what it is that has happened and bitch and curse and kick the car tire, or I call AAA, get somebody to jump it or have them bring a new battery, make some phone calls, arrive to my appointment late, this is just what happened, you know? There’s so many ways in which I can respond to all the tiny deaths that happen around me every day and I just choose to surrender to it, like actually release what has happened. It’s a practice though, I’m not — I’ve been working on it. I’ve been working on it affirmatively.
If you ask my sisters they probably say I don’t have much balance! I like silence. I like it when it’s quiet. I’d say that that’s probably what I do most to counterbalance. When there’s a lot of noise either environmental or a lot of talking it just makes me a little wonky. I need the silence because I can operate at those pinnacles of emotion. It takes a lot of quieting down. It’s been developed, I’ve been working on it awhile, through meditation practice. I dance, I exercise, exercise is really important to me. I run, mostly, so wonderfully meditative, nothing but me and my breath and my feet.
I’m pretty clear that in a few years, death is going to be a regular national conversation and I believe that I am going to be a part of that conversation, such that the work that I’ve started now with Going With Grace is becoming a part of the way we do things.
Alua Arthur was in a dark place when she found herself on a bus in Cuba sitting next to a woman with a tattoo of a pen on her forearm. By the end of that serendipitous 14 hour journey, she had direction: she would leave her job as an attorney in Los Angeles and become a death doula. She would help people transition across the inexplicable boundary between life and the other side.
But her path was not as clear as she imagined. It never is.