Apr 21, 2024 - News

Death doulas offer different way of dying in Chicago

Illustration of a collage of hands holding and a bouquet of flowers behind a curtain.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

While birth doulas help bring new life into the world, a Chicago group is helping the dying transition out.

Why it matters: Families often feel overwhelmed or alone navigating the logistical and emotional demands that arise during the dying process, but the Chicago Death Doula Collective wants to help ease the burden and demystify conversations about death.

How it works: Death doulas are non-medical caregivers who help with end-of-life preparation, like body disposition, funeral planning, memorials, obituary writing, calling family members and organizing meals. They even work with the living to make sure their end-of-life care and needs are in place.

  • Chicago Death Doula Collective (CDDC) also hosts regular book clubs and death cafes for people curious about mortality or those who fear death and dying.

What they're saying: "Many of us that are drawn to this line of work; we have similar backstories in that we've had a lot of death in our lives," CDDC member Erica Reid Gerdes tells Axios. "We're the people who are wanting death to be talked about just as much as birth is, and I was always teased by my friends as being the person to talk about death at a party."

  • Reid Gerdes offers her services on a sliding scale, or whatever the client can pay, but the average range is from $65 to $125 an hour.

The intrigue: Death doulas aren't just for humans; they also help plan pet memorials.

Context: Death doulas are "as old as time," Reid Gerdes says, but it's a relatively recent phenomenon in Western culture. An article in the journal Palliative Care & Social Practice points to a 2001 New York program as one of the first to use the term "doula" for end-of-life non-medical care.

  • The group of volunteers focused on the needs of people who might be alone and isolated during the dying process.

The big picture: There isn't one specific training process to become a death doula, though the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance has created a core competencies exam, code of ethics and proficiency badge. The University of Vermont offers a certification course.

Zoom in: Patrice Horton, a Chicago death doula who's studying to be a funeral director, tells Axios it's important to acknowledge how different religions and cultures embrace death. She says the most essential practice as a doula is customizing the care for the dying.

  • "I had a recent client … the family wasn't necessarily very religious. They said she was basically Catholic, but all throughout their adult life they had not [gone] to church," Horton says. "But she loved Elvis, and we played Elvis for her."

What's next: This Saturday, the collective is hosting a book club at 3pm at the Sulzer Regional Library, and a death cafe at Chi Yoga Shack at 5:30pm.

  • The cafes take place the last Saturday of each month.
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