Death Doula to the Planet: On Transitions and Climate Grief

Somewhere in the march of “progress”, Western civilization has commodified almost everything; even life and death are products. This commodification hides the realities of our existence—and the reality that existence is temporary. As Jessica Mitford said in her incisive critique, The American Way of Death, the funeral industry “[puts] on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death played no part whatsoever.” These funereal magic shows leave us less and less able to understand death, but that effect is wanted, lest we become too squeamish to consume their death products.

Some people are fighting back against the death industrial complex with an onslaught of alternative and “green” mortuary services. Among the death vanguards is Caitlin Doughty, of Ask a Mortician and The Order of the Good Death, encouraging us to reclaim our rights to our deaths and our dead. Dr. Kami Fletcher, president of The Collective for Radical Death Studies, is examining colonialism’s intersection with death capitalism in an effort to “de-center whiteness while calling to radicalize death practices.” There is no shortage of amazing folx pulling back the “formaldehyde curtain.” One of the most fascinating things to rise out of this movement, or rather reemerge under a new name, is the ‘death doula.’

The only known portrait of African-American funeral home owner Henrietta Duterte, inserted in an image of her funeral home.
Henrietta Duterte, first female American funeral home owner and abolitionist, was also a predecessor to the death doula movement.

Despite the newer title, having attendants to the dead is not a new phenomena, but one seen in every society. For many years in Western culture, death was attended to in the home and largely by women. Now, many women and femmes are reclaiming that role in a new iteration, the end-of-life doula. Just as a traditional doula is the attendant for a birth, the death doula assists in the passage from life. As death doula Alua Arthur says about her work, her role is “supporting families as they walk a loved one through the end of life” in a way that acknowledges the dying person’s “unique humanhood.”

Professional death doulas go through extensive training, but many of us feel a connection to this burgeoning movement. We feel not just intrigued, but called by the climate tragedy we face. Each of us feels summoned to be a death doula for our dying planet.

The mass extinction that characterizes the Anthropocene era is one of the unavoidable facts of our time. Death, while always essential to the continuation of life, has accelerated to a relentless hum of loss in our collective psyche.

Image by Christoph Schütz from Pixabay

Of course, we do not have to just resign ourselves to the loss. Alua Arthur describes what she does as “bring[ing] grace and compassion to the cycle of life by planning for it and effortlessly tying up the loose ends.” My call is asking for much the same.

We need to bring grace and compassion to the cycle of loss that our current systems are causing on this planet by both planning how to react to it and tying up the loose ends of our own lives that prevent us from doing the work.

Our first step as death doulas for the planet is to acknowledge that this climate crisis, and the loss it causes, is real. The Good Grief Network, a program to build resilience around environmental grief, first asks their participants to “acknowledge the severity of the problem.” Just as in human death, denial and silence about environmental loss is not helpful and leaves us that much more unprepared for that loss.

Just as Caitlin Doughty and other death workers ask us to have a death plan, I’m asking you to start a climate plan. What do you need to know about our climate crisis? What skills might you need to learn to adapt? What communities might you need to connect with? Then, based on your evaluation, determine what resources and people you need on the next step of your journey.

Finding people to help you process and react to Anthropocene-created loss is a strong next step. In addition to the Good Grief Network, Professor Jem Bendell, author of “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigation Climate Tragedy”, has formed Positive Deep Adaptation groups where like minds can be found. The Climate Justice Alliance, with a focus on “Just Transition[ing] away from extractive systems… towards resilient, regenerative and equitable economies”, takes the necessary intersectional look at the work of attending to climate loss. Regardless of whom you find, you need community to do this work.

“Mother” Mary Harris Jones was an Irish immigrant schoolteacher turned labor organizer, who eventually co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.

Many activist circles often quote legendary labor organizer “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, echoing her refrain of, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” Her astute aphorism is not an either/or proposition. Being a death doula for our planet is not a passive role. Acknowledging this climate tragedy means helping the living see that the dead, especially the dead who died badly due to oppression, need to be fought for.

Their names still need to be spoken, and justice must still be found. Assisting us all through these planetary losses is no easy task. One must mourn birds, trees, water, and people of every kind. But to help other beings transition through life, in this time of chaotic change and loss, is an honor worth pursuing. Death doulas for the planet, take up your shrouds and tie up the loose ends of our world that is dying.