Recently Kelly Jeske, MSW interviewed Traci Emerson for a project to educate Social Work students on the topic of Alternative End of Life and Death Care. Here is what they discussed:
How did you become interested in end of life and death work?
I grew up in a rural environment and death was intricately woven throughout daily life, in crop cycles, with livestock, and accidental deaths from farm work, cars, and guns. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized other young people had not been to half a dozen funerals for their peers. My college boyfriend also passed away unexpectedly at 23 from an undiagnosed heart condition.
I became radicalized around death care when I read a story about a woman who lost her long time partner to breast cancer. She went to a funeral home in the St Johns neighborhood in Portland and the Director refused to help her and instead would only deal with the long-estranged father of the deceased. I was so infuriated I knew I had to do something to ensure that this not happen to others in my community.
Where have you focused your energy and attention so far?
I have attended several different trainings to learn how to plan and direct home funerals, end of life care and planning, and grief work. I have read a lot of books, listened to a lot of stories and held a lot of hands. Right now I am focusing my attention on furthering the conversation around dying and death with the community through Death Cafes and an amazing event that is happening on October 17th called Death:OK A Day of Inspiration, Information, and Connection.
Can you lay out some core terms and definitions used in this work?
Death Midwife or Doula-someone who attends to the needs of a person who is actively dying.
Family Directed Funeral- Caring for the body, facilitating a wake or celebration, and arranging for final dispensation (burial, cremation, donation) with little to no help from a traditional Funeral Professional.
Natural Burial- burial in a cemetery, memorial preserve, or private family plot with minimal intrusion to the body or use of chemicals and non-organic coffins.
Advance Directive- creating a plan that goes far beyond the form required by hospitals but actually creating a plan and sharing it with loved-ones and care providers. This plan can include everything from what measures you want taken to keep you alive to which one of your friends you would like to wash your hair before a home viewing.
Death Cafe: An International movement of folks coming together to talk about dying and death with no agenda, dogma, or profit. It is a conversation over tea and treats.
Where do you hope to go with this kind of work in the future?
I hope to continue to learn and practice being a valuable resource to my community. I believe that folks are yearning to have holistic, respectful and natural relationship with dying and death and it’s my calling to help craft that reality.
Why is this work important to you?
Ultimately everyone I know and care about, including myself, is going to die. It is truly the only guarantee in this life. Why should we put more care and energy in to what kind of car to buy than in to our own plans for dying?
How is this work important for individuals? For families? For society at large?
For individuals planning for and examining personal mortality can be incredibly life-affirming. For families having conversations regarding end-of-life and legacy issues can create an environment of inclusiveness and acceptance. For society at large the fact of the matter is that being comfortable with mortality is bad for business. Capitalism thrives on folks needing to buy things to help them overcome aging, pain, or sadness. If we were to become friends with the idea of our own mortality entire industries would dry up.
How can social workers be involved in this movement?
You are vital! Come to death cafes, attend trainings from family-centered death care educators, explore the resources I suggest below.
What are your favorite resources?
Stephen Jenkinson (author)
Departing Decisions (resource guide)
Ask A Mortician (website)
Death Cafe (event)
Death Midwifery in Canada (Facebook group)
Death, Sex, and Money (podcast)
White Eagle Nature Preserve (natural burial site)
Final Passages (Home Funeral Training)
A Will for the Woods (book)
A Family Undertaking (film)
Grave Matters (book)
Death Salon (event)
PDX Death Cafe Goes to the Movies (event)