Who are you?
Good question! Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Ames Elliot. See my about page to learn more about my values, education and experience. You can also read how I got here and why I do this work on my story page.
What do you call yourself?
Another great question. There are many names for the work I do. The National Home Funeral Alliance has a terrific chart that breaks it down. The print is tiny so I've typed it out below.
End-of-Life Transition Guide: Accompanies a dying person and/or family and friends through a personal, intentional and conscious dying process to realize a good death. Other terms used include: Conscious Dying Guide, Death Doula, Death Midwife, Death Transition Guide, End-of-Life Doula, End-of-Life Guide, Midwife to the Dying, Midwife to the Soul, Pre-Death Guide, Psychopomp, Soul Midwife, Sacred Crossings Guide and Thanadoula.
Home Funeral Guide: Works to empower families and/or friends to care for their own dead, including educating, consulting and guiding them through after-death care. Other terms for this are: Death Midwife, Family Funeral Guide, Home Funeral Educator and Home Vigil and Funeral Guide.
Celebrant: Works with family and/or friends to create a highly personalized ceremony (funeral, memorial, celebration of life) and includes titles such as Ceremonialist, Clergy, and Officiant.
Why are there so many different names for this work?
This is a really new field. Well, it’s new to this century. Embalming wasn't invented until the 1860's for the purpose of transporting Union soldier's bodies back north during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln's funeral train exposed 180 cities in 7 states to the practice of embalming. Before all that, people usually died at home and bodies were “laid out” in the parlor for the wake. The modern funeral industry didn’t pick up steam until the 1900’s, largely due to a the notion that corpses were a threat to public health. As medicine grew more sophisticated, people went to hospitals when they were sick and often died there. Funeral Directors offered services that would retrieve the body from the hospital, embalm it, and then hold visitations at the funeral home. It’s basically the same model today. With the rise in funeral costs, the aging of the baby boomer population, and an increased awareness about the environmental impacts of embalming, home funerals are generating more interest. Because of the newness this work, we don't have a central organization, we don’t have a “charter” and we don’t have standard terms. I'll explain a few of the most popular terms below.
What is a death midwife?
I’m so glad you asked! Generally speaking, death midwives are regarded as the other half of birth midwifery practice.
According to the Oregon Midwifery Council, the role of midwives is to:
Monitor the physical, psychological, and social well-being of the mother throughout the childbearing cycle.
Essentially, birth midwives meet with families during pregnancy, educate them about the process, make a birth plan, attend the birth, and follow up with the families after the birth to make sure everyone is doing well.
Death midwives serve in a similar role. They meet with people who are facing the end of their lives through terminal illness or old age. They talk with you about advanced directives and other ways of making your wishes known to your family and care providers. They assist through the dying process by simply being there for you. They do their best to make sure you are comfortable. They provide grief support to you and your family. They help your loved ones plan your funeral and burial or cremation.
There are some significant differences between birth and death midwives. The State of Oregon doesn’t require a birth midwife to be licensed, however the vast majority are licensed based on a combination of education and experience. Birth midwives provide hands-on, clinical care to woman and babies. Some can write prescriptions and do procedures. Many work as primary care providers. The term “midwife” as used here is not intended to minimize the exceptionally skilled work of birth midwives.
What about licenses?
There is no special training or licensing required to be a death midwife. There is no national advocacy group. There aren’t any guidelines for practice. There are several terms used to describe the work. Some terms being used these days are “death doula” and “soul midwife”.
What is a death doula?
The comparison to birth doulas is useful here, too. DONA International definition:
The word "doula" comes from the ancient Greek meaning "a woman who serves" and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.
Doulas often work with birth midwives but not always. While midwives give clinical care like monitoring heartbeat and oxygen levels, stripping membranes and repositioning the baby in utero, doulas provide intimate care to laboring women such as back rubs and meal preparation.
What is a soul midwife?
The Soul Midwife’s School defines it this way:
Soul Midwives are non-medical, holistic companions who guide and support the dying in order to facilitate a gentle and tranquil death.
The birth midwife comparison here is less useful here as soul midwives consider themselves to be more of a spirit guide for the dying. The key word here is “holistic”. It means working with the spirit and soul of the person, as well as using therapeutic techniques such as sound, touch, and color.
I do not call myself a soul midwife because I don’t consider myself a spiritual guide. I honor every person’s unique beliefs about the afterlife, including those that don’t believe in an afterlife.
What is a celebrant?
According to Wikipedia, celebrancy is a movement to provide officiants at weddings, funerals, and other life ceremonies for people who do not want a traditional religious ceremony. And because one in five Americans don’t have a religious affiliation, and 37% of those people define themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, celebrancy is an idea whose time has come. I am a trained funeral celebrant. One critical demonstration of humanity is how we care for our dead. There is evidence of ceremonial human burial as far back as 300,000 years ago. Scientists have uncovered graves with traces of pollen and red ochre on the bodies. This indicates bodies were rubbed with red ochre for ritual purposes and buried with flowers. Human beings need ceremony. It’s as simple as that.
What is a Life-Cycle Celebrant?
A Life-Cycle Celebrant is someone who has been trained and certified by the Celebrancy Foundation and Institute. We perform customized ceremonies and rituals that serve the needs of the individual and society. I trained with the CFI for eight months on the elements of ceremonies, rites of passage and memorials. There are many celebrant certifications, but the CFI certification is by far the most intensive in time, training, and peer support.
What is a home funeral?
A home funeral is a funeral….at home. Believe it or not, in Oregon, you can bring your loved one home after they die, hold a wake for several days and then bury them in your backyard. You don’t have to embalm them, go through a funeral parlor, or pay someone to drive their body to the crematory. The State of Oregon allows families to act as their own funeral directors. But why? And how? And WHY???
This is a moving article that highlights why some people seek out home funerals. The video of Adelaidas's parents talking about their daughter’s death is what set me on the path to becoming a death midwife. A Family Undertaking is another terrific look at why the home funeral movement is gaining momentum. You can find more information at the National Home Funeral Alliance website.
Are you a grief counselor?
Heavens no! I'm not a therapist, psychologist, or counselor. According to Wikipedia, during psychotherapy a client learns about their moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviors and how to better respond to life's challenges. My role is to support you in your grief. It's really very simple. I listen. I hand you a box of tissues if you start to cry. I laugh with you when you say something funny. You can be your miserable, angry, confused, devastated, don't-think-you-can-live-with-the-pain self and I'll sit with you in that space. I'll accept you without judgment, I won't give you unsolicited advice, and I don't need you to comfort me.
What is hospice?
Hospice means that you are going/staying home to die from a specific illness. Broadly, it is a philosophy of compassionate care for people who cannot be cured and accept the end is near. More specifically, hospice is a word used by Medicare to refer for services provided in a home-like setting, by nurses and other professionals, and only after a doctor says you have six months left to live. The Oregon Hospice Association is a wonderful resource for more information.
What is palliative care?
Palliative care means that you dying and you want your life to be prolonged with all available medical treatments. The philosophy of palliative care is that your symptoms (pain, shortness of breath, etc.) are relieved so you can live comfortably as long as you can. It is usually managed by doctors and a team of other providers in a hospital setting. Again, see the Oregon Hospice Association for more information.
What is the difference between atheist, agnostic and humanist?
Let's ask our friend Wikipedia, shall we? Put very very simply, atheism is the belief that there is no god; agnosticism means not knowing if there is a god or believing that the existence of god is unknowable; and humanism looks to reason and science to understand our world.
What does "religiously unaffiliated" mean?
The Pew Research Center defines "unaffiliated" as those who describe themselves asatheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular". This number has jumped from 16% of the American population to 23% in the last 7 years. The maturation of the Millennial generation is a big part of this shift: 36% of those between 18 and 24 years old and 34% of those 25 to 33 years old identify as religiously unaffiliated. Even so, older populations like Generation Xers and Baby Boomers are increasingly more likely to be unaffiliated. The Pew Research Center put together an interactive tool to look at these trends and I highly recommend it.
Seriously? You "put a bird on it" for your logo/mark?
Indeed I did. There's a reason why birds are so often used in popular imagery. They resonate. They are regarded by various cultures as symbols of freedom, messengers between heaven and earth, and transcendence. Consider their use in America. Wise as an owl. Crazy as a loon. Happy as a lark. Naked as a jaybird. Swan song. Fly the coop. Get your ducks in a row. How about in pop music? Blackbird. El Condor Pasa. Take These Wings. Bye Bye Blackbird. Broken Wings. I'll Fly Away. Bird on a Wire. On The Wings Of Love. Magpie. I Like Birds. When Doves Cry. Rockin' Robin. Angel Band. Three Little Birds. Sweet Bird. Birdhouse In Your Soul. Morning Has Broken. Edge of Seventeen. Pajarillo Barraqueno. You get the idea. But the real reason I chose a bird is this story by Kathie Russo, Spalding Gray's widow. Spalding goes missing for two months and it's only after the recovery of his body that they learn he jumped to his death on that first day. Two days after Spalding goes missing, before they know he's already dead, she and her children find a bird in the house. Kathie recounts the ensuing events on an episode of This American Life. If you'd like to listen to the story, and I hope you do, it's offered in audio and transcript.
What is the meaning of life?
Pssssh. I have no idea. I have a feeling it's do with loving one another, being kind to animals, and caring for the world around us.