Image: Hosts Nadine Cohen and Anthony Levin.

Death doulas to funeral parties: Chatting Grave Matters with Nadine Cohen and Anthony Levin

At Missing Perspectives this week, we want to chat about death doulas. Yes, you read that right.

This week at Missing Perspectives, we want to chat about doulas. But not the kind of doula that you might be picturing. We want to talk about death doulas.

The Australian Doula College website notes, “An End of Life Doula is not a new concept. Many cultures for thousands of years have supported the practice of people staying in their homes to die, looked after by family and community. However, in the modern Western world, there has been a trend towards nursing homes and hospitalization which can lead to isolation, as well as lack of choice and opportunity for all concerned. Death, inevitable as it is, can often become a lonely and somber ‘medicalised’ experience.”

But what does a death doula actually do? Well, after some quick research, it’s clear the key role of a death doula is to support the dying and serve as a companion, walking them through any choices and decisions that have to be made - to ensure that the dying person is informed.

Interestingly, Flinders University senior lecturer Deb Rawlings has been exploring the emerging work of death doulas, observing: “Through our research, we can see that death doulas currently provide a service that health professionals do not,” she says. “However, because it’s an emerging profession, there’s no consistency yet about what death doulas provide, and we need clarity and transparency about what is being offered.”

Wondering what sent me into this death doula rabbit hole? It came up in a conversation I was having with writer and refugee advocate Nadine Cohen and human rights lawyer Anthony Levin. The two have joined forces for a new SBS podcast Grave Matters – where they explore grief, death care, and the business of dying with experts and advocates from around the world. 

As part of this new podcast series (which launched two weeks ago), Nadine and Anthony interviewed several death doulas - including end-of-life doula and death literacy educator Bec Lyons.

"We talked to three [death doulas]. They all came from different professionals. One was quite corporate, and one had been in real estate. One was a personal trainer," says Nadine.

“The personal trainer is a Lebanese Muslim woman. She’s really interesting - and she's on a mission to raise death literacy in her community to get people talking more. All three of them can prepare and wash bodies, jumping in at any point. One had a near death experience that made her realise that she wasn’t in touch with that side at all.” 

They note the important role that death doulas play in terms of helping the dying and their families disrupt traditional thinking about death - including keeping the body at home as part of the grieving process. “They are helping people disrupt the death process. If someone has had an accident and is clearly on the way out, or after death, they are encouraging and facilitating people having their bodies at home," says Nadine.

So what made Nadine and Anthony want to start a podcast about death, and where did their interest in exploring death and mortality develop? 

Both Nadine and Anthony say that their family history shaped their comfort with talking about death, and wanting to unpack the taboo surrounding it. “I grew up in a Holocaust family, so death was always present in our lives from childhood,” Nadine says. “It’s something I have been comfortable talking about for a long time - I lost both my parents in my early twenties.” Anthony agrees, adding “The spectre of death hung over my family, and both of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors.”

“Secular Australians have no idea how to do death, and it’s not always out in the open. I've always been interested in that dearth of communication about it,” Nadine observes. “And in other cultures and practices around death. I came up with the concept because of that.”

So why is death still largely taboo here in Australia, and what have they learned about death through recording the series - and from the death doulas they have spoken with?

“It’s not a binary thing. That’s what I’ve learned from these conversations. Both are true: we are surrounded by a culture that is obsessed with death," says Anthony. "We’re constantly consuming content about death and dying. But interpersonally, we’re deficient in how we talk about death. In the personal sense, we don’t talk about it openly with each other."

We discuss the disruption happening in the funeral industry - and people challenging traditional ideas around dying, beyond death doulas. “Commercial funeral industry practices create a lot of problems. We’re seeing funeral poverty as a result. It’s a very expensive undertaking, to have a funeral, to bury someone and cremate someone. What we look at in the podcast, are alternatives to what is happening. People are able to do more bespoke funerals,” Nadine says. ”A funeral can be a party. A funeral can be just honouring the dead. You can have a football game, if that’s what would honour that person more."

Anthony notes that we're even seeing disruption in the memorialisation space. "The cemetery space is very contested - there are traditional ways that we remember people. Some people like that tradition, there’s a headstone and flowers set," he says. "There are all sorts of innovative ways that people are interacting with the memory of the dead.”

With all of that in mind, were there specific episodes or guests that had a lasting impact on Nadine and Anthony's own perspective on life and death?

“The climate change episode for me,” says Nadine. “It really opened my eyes to the scale of the problem on the death level - death of country, environment - so many things that are being lost because of this. The scale of it already," she says. "Putting it into stats and timelines was difficult for me to grasp. Of all the episodes, that was the one that I walked away from feeling very heavy. We talk to a policy advisor about it, and then we talk to a woman who is a therapist that specialises in climate grief. She was really interesting to talk to, because I didn’t know that was happening.”

Anthony agrees. “It was necessary and hard to confront those issues. All the guests really opened up our views and thinking in multiple ways… I can’t pinpoint a particular guest - but mostly felt inspired by them, the practitioners, and the academics in the cutting edge of developments in the sector," he says. "What a joy to learn about things that could radically change the way we relate to death and dying.”

Grave Matters is available now wherever you get your podcasts.