The Breath of Death ~ Personal Reflections on the Community Deathcare Movement

 Author’s Note: I have contemplated writing this piece for some time but it hasn’t unfolded easily. I have been struggling this past year with the evolution (or perhaps erosion) of the community deathcare movement. Proceed with caution. If this article causes reflection, it has achieved its purpose.

In the Beginning

My introduction to what I now know to be community deathcare happened over 40 years ago although it didn’t have a fancy name back then. I grew up with an abnormal “comfort” around death, thanks to being raised in an Irish Catholic family with parents who never shied away from the topic. They used the proper terms of “death,” “dying” and “dead” and openly talked about the sometimes-tragic deaths of loved ones. My mom was also a nurse and so she would come home some days feeling very sad over the death of a patient she had cared about for many weeks or months. People often died at home back then and my mom would be called out to offer guidance and comfort and my sisters and I would be sent to the same homes with food for the caregivers.

We sang at funerals in our small, rural church and had attended countless wakes and funerals by the time we reached adolescence. Oftentimes, we didn’t know the deceased personally. My mother would say, “It’s just the right thing to do” especially if the deceased had no living relatives. It was considerate to show up and pay your respects and was the norm in our small community to reach out when people were suffering or celebrating. You helped each other whether it was making a casserole for a new mom, creating Kleenex flowers for wedding cars or taking part in the rituals of death. My mom grew up at a time when older generations died at home and families and communities took care of the details that followed. She naturally passed this on to her children.

A death education course in my high school inspired me to consider funeral direction as a possible career but in 1998, just two years after I graduated with a diploma in social service work, life, unexpectedly, led me to birth doula work and that is where I remained for fifteen years working with labouring, birthing and new mothers and their families. Although birth and death are the bookends to life, there were times the line between birth and death blurred and the space between disappeared. It was in these times that I found myself effortlessly able to shift the support I was providing.   

With my daughter….December 2003

During this time as a birth doula, I became a mother. In 2003, our daughter endured an abrupt lack of oxygen at birth resulting in significant brain damage. Thus began a precarious journey of living with the knowledge that we would likely outlive our daughter. She was given a life expectancy of age 7 or 8. And “death” walked alongside us, showing itself in frantic 911 calls that left us shattered and determined to savour every moment of life with her while we had her.

The home dying and death of my grandmother on Jan. 1st 2011, affected me profoundly when I experienced firsthand that my doula skills were easily transferred to help my grandmother as she made this final transition. My interest in death care was sparked yet again but I was not at a place in my life to explore this further. Expanding my officiating services in 2013 to that of Life-Cycle Celebrant and specializing in funeral ceremonies, came naturally and I felt tremendous fulfillment in offering meaningful ceremony to those who were facing the death of a loved one head on. 

That Death Lady

In 2015, I came upon the BeYond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (which eventually changed to the BeYond Yonder Virtual School for Community Deathcaring in Canada) and I knew I had found the course that I needed to take.  My reason for enrolling in this course was a desire for a deeper understanding of caring for the dying and the bereaved to enhance my celebrant practice and my volunteer work at a local hospice. I was also under the impression that in twelve weeks (300+ hours of study), I would be certified in some way as a “Death Midwife” with the credentials to set up shop and start offering my services by the spring of 2016.

I soon found out that this was not the case at all and expanded my initial vision on what I thought my practice would look like to this: “I believe that my role as a death midwifery practitioner in the community will begin with education and establishing positive relationships with the more progressive funeral homes in the area. I think I will become a “go-to” person for questions surrounding death and dying and because I am a part of the community, I may be more approachable and more easily accessible than booking an appointment with a local funeral director.  Because I will not be charging a fee and my time is extremely valuable, I know that my boundaries will be tighter with clients outside of my friends and family.”

Looking back, I find it interesting that I wrote that I would not be charging a fee because a month later, I changed my views a little. When asked the question: Are home funeral guides who offer service for pay simply adding another consumer layer to the funeral industry? I replied: “I think it depends on where they are in their head. Are they coming from a place of “You need me. You can’t do this on your own” or are they coming from a place of “My time is valuable and I should be compensated fairly for my time?” If the death midwifery practitioner is going out into the community to empower families with education and support then I think having compensation for that is okay. Moving into a family’s space and taking over while charging hundreds of dollars is, in my opinion, moving in on funeral industry tactics and territory.”

By the halfway mark, I was understanding that my role was fairly stand-off-ish and that death midwifery was more about a movement than a career. And as the final weeks unfolded, a deeper knowledge was percolating and my original thoughts were transformed into more meaningful insights. The in-depth coursework and journal entries pushed me into spaces I would have never explored had I not taken part in this course. It urged me to examine my death denial even though initially I was insistent that I was NOT in denial.

As the course was wrapping up, I recognized that my initial thoughts on the “scope of practice” of the death midwifery practitioner was vastly different than what it had turned out to be.  I discovered that my role was far more minimal than I had anticipated coming into the course. My entire focus and perception of the death midwife changed tremendously and I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t have a clearer understanding. The more I realized that this movement was about empowering the family and education, the more I realized that this course was more of an interest course as opposed to something I could use to enhance my career and work with the dying and bereaved. I remember feeling a bit frustrated that I had spent a significant amount of money to ultimately provide information to members of my community without ever receiving any type of compensation.

As the last week came to a close, I had done a complete 180. I decided that I would not be calling myself a death midwifery practitioner, death midwife, death doula or home funeral guide. My intention was to quietly move about my life reading and learning and preparing for the deaths of my daughter and other family members.

Perhaps the greatest revelation from this course was the clarity I gained on how I would like to care for our daughter in her dying, death and after death. It is hard to place value on knowledge that has led me to a place of confidence where I have breathed life into these old ways that should have never been lost in the first place. What I didn’t expect was that this course would bring me to a place of readiness to care for my own dead loved ones. What a tremendous gift this will be not only to them but to my siblings, nieces and nephews. By caring for our own, they will learn the skills that will continue to be carried down through the generations and community led death care will have returned to my family.

In the months that followed this life changing course, I returned to my work as a celebrant designing unique and meaningful, custom ceremonies and allowed time for all that I learned to settle into my psyche. By January 2017, I created and began offering a unique death preparation course to my community. I continued to host the Death Cafes I had been offering since 2014 and volunteer my time giving massage to the residents and their families at our local hospice. My career as a Life-Cycle Celebrant has been thriving as I continue to use the art of ritual and ceremony to assist people in navigating dying, death and bereavement.  

When I completed the BeYond Yonder course, I didn’t believe it was necessary to call myself anything as I assumed the community would come up with their own terminology…. “You know Julie Keon? She’s that death lady.” And that is exactly what happened.

The Derailment of a Movement

But then I got caught up in the movement that had taken on a life of its own like a runaway train. I felt torn between my heart, that wanted to just be there for whomever found their way to me, and my mind, that felt pressured to acquire more (and more) schooling from the plethora of doula trainings that seemed to crop up almost daily and to give myself a title of Death Doula. I was struggling with the desire to empower people in my community through creative, educational gatherings while feeling under-qualified and believing I needed to spend a lot of money and time on training to prove that I was worthy of offering these services.

To my surprise, I was approached to teach and train death doulas and everything changed. I looked forward to attending the course as an observer (as a first step to becoming a trainer) but was sorely disappointed. Participants invested A LOT of money for something that lacked insight and depth and that could have been taught in half the amount of time. For the most part, it was a regurgitation of information as opposed to teaching valuable knowledge gained from actual experience. I was so frustrated by the end of it, that I was certain I did not want my name attached to it. It became clear to me that in a lot of instances, the ones who were really cashing in on this trend were the organizations offering the trainings.

I recognized that the fifteen years I offered birth doula services to my community was my greatest education in life and death. Seeing this role misunderstood and treated as a commodity was insulting. Sadly, after spending many years dedicated to making the term “doula” a household word, I distanced myself from it.  This was both confusing and heartbreaking to me. I continued to teach my death preparation course and offer guidance where needed within my community. Requests for my course curriculum often came from people who had zero experience or knowledge but who wanted to teach it. I had dedicated far too much time, thought and love to give it away. Besides, it was crafted around my own experiences; various topics illustrated with personal story telling.  The calls came in regularly about where one goes to school to become a death doula and I became increasingly disheartened. By this time, you could even pay for an online course to find out how to become a death doula.  

The Breath of Death

 “I felt the breath of death on that sunny afternoon but it wasn’t my time; it was just too soon. For a fraction of a second, I was cradled at the veil between Life and Death but LIFE prevailed.” ~ Julie Keon, November 6th 2019

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I am consistently reminded that whether we are ready or not, one day it will all come to an end. For some of us, it will be abrupt and unexpected while for others, it will come with awareness when given a terminal diagnosis. To say that I have a privileged awareness of death and its ability to come out of nowhere would be an understatement. I am reminded regularly through my role as a Celebrant. Yet as a mother to a child with medical fragility who lives with a shortened life expectancy, I hold a deeper understanding that death is always lurking nearby. At least I thought I did.

There is nothing like a near death experience to jolt you awake and shake up everything you previously believed to be true. On October 19th 2019, I was driving on a sunny fall day to my last wedding ceremony of the season. A shadowed dip in the road competed with the sun in my face to alter my vision for just a second. It was in that second that unbeknownst to me, a large buck had wandered into my path and at a speed of 85km/ hour, I hit it full force without warning. My air bags deployed and I managed to keep control of the car, pulling it over safely to the side of the road. Although the (minor) traumatic brain injury and whiplash I have been dealing with for the last several months has been tough, I have also been experiencing an awakening of sorts.

What I haven’t shared with many people is that although I have no memory of before or right after the collision, my brain managed to capture a microsecond flash of the moment of impact. This “flash” is of the airbags partially deployed and the outline of a deer through the white powder that the bags emit upon deployment. Considering they inflate at a speed of 300km, it is quite remarkable that my brain captured this microsecond of memory. It is this flash of memory that woke me in the early hours of the morning in the days and weeks following the accident.

I knew deep in my bones that it was in this moment that things could have gone either way. Surviving what could have been a fatal collision dissolved any control I thought I had about my life and death and there was something immensely freeing about it. It’s as though my body and mind were cradled between life and death which was both terrifying and fascinating. The immensity of that microsecond left me feeling profoundly vulnerable yet surprisingly peaceful and calm. The intensity of it would be impossible to live with indefinitely. As it began to fade, I wanted to cling to that sense of teetering between life and death if even for a microsecond.

What was most shocking to me, was the realization that even though I thought I was aware of how quickly and unexpectedly our lives can end, there was still a part of me that unconsciously believed that it wouldn’t happen to me anytime soon. Intellectually, I knew my death could come at any time. I had honoured enough people through ceremony to know that many lives end unexpectedly and sometimes tragically. Regardless, I still planned and expected to live to be 90. I have a child that is completely dependent on me and will always be until the end of her life. I know now that some part of me believed that it couldn’t happen to me…….until it did. There is nothing that could have awaken me more profoundly than this sudden close call.

This has rocked me so deeply that I now view the entire community deathcare movement in a completely different light. Although I have been troubled by aspects of it for a very long time, I am recognizing that much of it is, in its simplest form, another way of denying death. Now this seems contrary to what is happening considering the countless Death Expos, Death Cafes and death conferences cropping up all over the place. And people like Caitlin Doughty (Ask a Mortician), for example, have made death (and work related to it) “positive”, and hip. A whole lot of people have come out of the woodwork and latched onto a trendy movement. In a grave (pun intended) attempt to soften the sharp edges of death, I think we have lost reverence for it and even make a mockery of it through witty memes, skull themed paraphernalia, Gothic personas, humourous YouTube videos and TED Talks. I, too, am guilty as charged.

Is It Just Me?

As I wrote at the beginning, I have struggled this past year with a deep concern for what originally started out as a movement and has, in many ways, morphed into a sugar-coated version of a funeral industry that lost its way a long time ago. It began with good intention but has transformed into its own machine where death doulas are being “trained” (I use that word loosely) at a rate that far exceeds a market that, frankly, barely exists at this time. Is it just me, or is everyone suddenly jumping on the death train with a desire to become a professional to assist the dying?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that a good number of people are jumping on this train for the right reasons. And many were part of community deathcare long before it became a thing. I have dear friends who identify as death doulas and even train death doulas and so I mean no disrespect. If you are one of these people, I trust you will easily understand where I am coming from. However, there is a dark underbelly to the movement that is disturbing and concerning. For example, I recently read a thread on social media of creating a sub type of death doula for parents like me. I was dumbfounded at the number of people who were wanting to “work with peds” and with “dying children.”

As a mother of a child who is medically fragile, I have naturally assisted the parents in my community when their children are palliative. Of course, they have tremendous support from the palliative team and I simply bring a different type of support and care. I encourage them to slow things down after the death and to consider after death care, ritual, etc. I am NEVER present at the deaths as this is not my place, unless they want me there. My role is to empower, educate and support THEM so they can do everything on their own. And you know what happens after that? They, in turn, pass this knowledge on to the next family that must go through the death of their child.

What it really comes down to, after you peel back the layers, is an imbalance of too much ego and too little integrity.

When so called death workers are uttering things like, “How can we make death sexy?”

Or when (privileged) white women (and men) are dropping thousands of dollars to attend “Become a Shaman” trainings 

Or when people flock to gush over a death guru / plastic shaman

Or when people are paying ridiculous amounts of money for the dime-a-dozen, death doula trainings,

Or when a supposed “death doula” tells me I am “lucky” because I am personally connected to a children’s hospice…..

Something. Isn’t. Right.

For my own sense of peace, I must retreat from the online communities and return my focus to the physical community in which I live. I have given too much energy fretting over the potential demise of a movement that I am still hopeful will recover.  In the meantime, my support and guidance will be offered where needed in a way that was taught to me by my mother who was taught by her mother and grandmother. By distancing myself from all that doesn’t sit well with me in the community deathcare movement, I can focus on how I can best support my own family, circle and community.

I am not sure we need specialized death doulas. Perhaps, instead, we need to remember the ancient skills that our families and communities used to know. We need to be reminded of those skills and pass them on. As we determine our comfort level, we can take back some of the responsibility of caring for our loved ones at the beginning of their decline and at the ending of their lives. And if the thought of caring for one’s own dying and dead is not appealing, even frightening, then we need to have people in our communities who can be called upon; the death ladies, if you will (like my mother before me). Regular women and men in the community who show up with their hands and hearts (and maybe a casserole for the caregivers) sharing knowledge and support without it being a ‘profession’ that involves monetary transactions.

My hope is that the “movement” finds itself in a similar place I found myself when I was blindsided by that close call. To continue moving in a sustainable and positive direction, we must pause and re-evaluate what will best serve our communities. Each one of us needs to ask ourselves if we are coming from a place of ego or integrity. And then we need to listen to the answer and let that guide us forward.

If you enjoyed this piece, you will LOVE Danna Schmidt’s article: “Knocking on Deathcare’s Door~ An Open Letter to the Community Deathcare Movement

Saying “I Do” Once Again~ Vow Renewals Part 1

I am a sucker for weddings. For as long as I can remember, I have always adored seeing a bride. I remember playing upstairs in our house or out in the back yard and hearing the telltale horn honking that a couple had just been wed. I would tear out to the sidewalk in a flash in hopes of catching a glimpse of white veil from the back seat of the car. I would feel exhilarated at the sight of a car decorated with handmade Kleenex flowers and a big “Just Married” sign attached to the back bumper.

But it didn’t stop there. I was known for marrying off my large collection of stuffed monkeys, dressing the bride in elaborate wedding dresses made from toilet paper and tissues. One memorable Christmas, Santa brought me  bride and groom Monchichi monkeys. 

When the opportunity to become a licensed Marriage Officiant presented itself in 2012, I knew this was a role meant for me. Even after officiating hundreds of marriage ceremonies since then, I still get a thrill when I see the bride walking down the aisle. My inner seven-year-old jumps for joy. Sometimes, I even get to officiate the marriage of two brides which is double the fun! (side note: Don’t get me wrong, I do love my grooms …….I just have this thing for the brides). I admit that my guilty pleasure is watching wedding related shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” on Sunday mornings. For those of you who know me well…….I know this is a shocking reveal. Don’t judge. 

For the last 8 years, just before wedding season kicks in, I get so excited to tap into my creativity and create one-of-a-kind, meaningful ceremonies to celebrate a couple’s love. My training as a Life-Cycle Celebrant brings my skill to a whole new level. The custom, Celebrant-styled ceremonies are perhaps my most favourite of all of the marriage ceremonies I offer. These are over the top and include custom created rituals designed specifically for the couple being honoured. 

I am discovering, though, that there is another ceremony that is competing for my attention and that is the one where a married couple says “I Do….again” in the form of a Vow Renewal Ceremony.

Celebrating this couple’s 50 years of marriage! Photo courtesy of Tired Tim Photography

There are many reasons why a couple would choose to renew their marriage vows however the most common reason is to celebrate a milestone anniversary whether that be the 5th, 10th, 20th, 25th or even 50th.  For some couples, they have had their vows challenged in ways they could have never imagined. These challenges can lead to shaky ground leaving the couple to question whether they can stay married. A couple that surpasses these tough times might wish to have a ceremony to mark a new beginning in their marriage or reaffirm that they want to continue to stick it out, for better or for worse.

Lots of things change in the years after a couple says, “I do.” A vow renewal is not only a re-commitment to one another but can include a couple’s children who arrived after the marriage. And you may want to have a vow renewal because you eloped and never got to experience the celebrations that often accompany a wedding. Your wedding day may have been planned by well meaning family members and now you want to do something that reflects the two of you.

It’s even more special when I create a vow renewal ceremony for a couple that I originally joined in marriage. Celebrating 5 years of marriage with this couple! Photo Courtesy of Tired Tim Photography

Whatever the reason, if a vow renewal is something that interests you, there are a few things to consider.  It is important to remember that this isn’t a re-do of your wedding although there are aspects that can be a part of your vow renewal. Finding a skilled officiant, who can listen to the story of your marriage (the challenges, hardships, joys, accomplishments) and magically turn into a ceremony is one of the most important parts of a vow renewal. And, of course, the vows themselves are at the heart of this type of ceremony. Some couples recite the vows they made on their wedding day while others write new ones or combine the two. Anything is possible!

This was the very first couple I married. When she was pregnant with their first child, he secretly planned a vow renewal ceremony when they were visiting the cottage where their wedding took place. It was quite the surprise when I showed up unexpectedly with their original vows in hand. Photo Courtesy of Tired Tim Photography

Couples can choose to have a private ceremony or include family and friends. The celebration might include a morning brunch or a large party complete with dancing. Some couples wear their wedding attire or choose to wear something new. You can have special food and cake as well as party favours. It is a sweet added touch to display photos/ mementos from the original wedding. It is perfectly okay and recommended to hire a professional photographer (and videographer) to capture your special day. Before you know it, another 20 years will have passed and you will be happy with the memories that incredible photos and film inspire.

If you think a vow renewal ceremony is something you wish to explore, this article on Vow Renewal Etiquette is a great place to start.

Stay tuned for PART 2 when I found myself as the client as opposed to the wedding professional. I will write about my own vow renewal ceremony that took place this past June in celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary. Ever wonder how a wedding professional chooses their vendors? In Part 3, I will  highlight the professionals who helped make our day into everything we imagined.




Protecting the Death Memory

I became a birth doula in 1998 and spent the next many years supporting women through labour, birth and the postnatal period as a birth and postpartum doula, prenatal educator and breastfeeding counsellor.

As a fledgling doula, I had my own ideas as to what made a positive birth experience and did my best to help women achieve that. When a birth unfolded in a low intervention, natural way, I deemed it a success. If a birth resulted in a cesarean birth, I would feel deflated and somewhat of a failure that I did not help my client achieve the birth she had hoped for. My training had not prepared me for the intricacies of true labour support and very quickly I knew that in order to support my clients, I needed to put my own expectations and judgements aside and have them lead the way.

Photo ©Brittany Lynne Gillman

Experience brings learning that cannot be achieved through a three-day training course nor the reading of books. After attending many births and observing the outcomes and reactions of couples in the postnatal period, I recognized that some births, that appeared to me to be amazing, were not perceived in the same way by the postnatal mother. And other births that seemed to go off the rails and that I might imagine as deeply disturbing, were perceived as positive by the new mother. It turned out that what was a positive birth ‘on paper’ was not necessarily reflective of the experience of the mother and her partner and vice versa. On top of that, everyone in attendance could have a variety of reactions and memories to what occurred. Oftentimes, the mother emerged on the other side feeling powerful and strong while her partner or other family members were left feeling traumatized by what they witnessed.

I began to observe a common thread in births that were perceived as difficult or even traumatic. It didn’t have a lot to do with what happened but instead, how it was experienced and perceived by the mother and her partner/ family or friends. We know that trauma in general is often caused by a sudden turn of events or anytime a person feels out of control or senses that they are in danger. In birth, if a mother perceives that her unborn baby could be in danger or at risk even if this isn’t the case, it can result in trauma.  You see, it was irrelevant what I, or anyone else for that matter, thought about the birth, it only mattered what the labouring mother and her partner experienced. It was not my role to express my feelings or perceptions at how the birth unfolded. My job was to support this family in having a positive birth experience however they defined that.

 In our postnatal visits, a debriefing of the birth was a valuable aspect of the care I provided. I would simply ask them to tell me the story of their birth. Although, I was present through all of it, it was crucial that they shared their memories of what occurred. One thing that was so important was that I listened and then adjusted my version to what theirs might be. For example, if I walked away from their birth feeling it was magnificent only to discover that the mother was now suffering with PTSD because the birth happened so incredibly fast (precipitous labour), I did not try to convince her that it was a wonderful birth and that she should be happy about it. Instead, I trusted and honoured her experience and gave her space to share her anger, fears, and thoughts about her birth. My role was to offer non-judgmental support and to refer her to other resources when I felt we exceeded my scope of practice. Most importantly, I validated her experience and then offered guidance in helping her to process and integrate what had happened.

After fifteen years, my birth work gradually came to an end. Now, twenty-one years after being trained as a birth doula, I now offer my support as a death doula. In my work with families going through the death of a loved one, I cannot help but compare my role as a death doula to that of a birth doula. It most cases, one only needs to replace the word “birth” with “death” to see the similarities. The transitions are different yet the ingredients in caregiving are remarkably similar.

Family Led Deathcare ©Julie Keon 2019

I came to this conclusion in 2010 as I helped my mother care for my paternal grandmother as she died at home. Long before the term “death doula” was appearing in the media on a regular basis, I wrote about it in my newspaper column. I didn’t have a name for it but wrote about my realization that caring for someone in their dying was akin to caring for someone in labour and birth. I learned that, like labour and birth, dying can be hard work. This very natural process takes time and a smoother transition often involves the loving support of trustworthy caregivers. As I spent time sitting with my Grandma, I reflected on how similar the care is when one helps to usher in a new soul as in birth and when one helps to send a soul on its’ way. The comfort measures, skills, support and caregiving that helped to make a birth experience more positive were the same in helping to make a death experience one that could also be described as positive and good.

Like birth, death has the potential to not only be a profound experience for those witnessing and caring for the one who is dying but for the dying person themselves. We cannot ask the deceased what their experience of death was like but we can certainly provide a level of care that leads to a good death (however they define that) and leaves their loved ones feeling positive about the events that unfolded as their loved one was dying. Granted, the family may still feel shocked and bereaved after the death but their days, weeks and months following may be less complicated if they perceive the dying and death process as positive.

As in labour and birth, the death doula is a unique and valuable part of the care team. Yes, people will die whether there is a doula present or not however the experience of the dying person and their caregivers can be enhanced by the specific role of the doula.

There have been numerous studies performed on the positive outcomes of doula attended births. One in-depth study on normal births looked at aspects that were associated with childbirth satisfaction (Hodnett 2002). These can easily be applied to dying and death. The psycho social factors that emerged from this study include: personal expectations, caregivers attitudes and behaviour, and personal control and decision making. We are still so early on in providing this unique care in dying and death that it will take time before we begin to take note of the factors that influence satisfaction with a death experience.

Continuous support for the dying and their loved ones, especially in the last days and final hours of dying, can be lacking. The presence of the doula can fill gaps in care and by doing so, protect the death memory of those who are loving and caring for their family member or friend through their dying.

Photo ©Jacqueline Lane 2019

By offering informational support after a diagnosis, for example, and connecting families with community resources, a doula assists in helping the person who is dying along with their caregivers to feel more in control. The continuous, on-call support of the doula gives a sense of security and assurance that there is someone to call on at anytime with questions or worries. A doula provides guidance in choosing where to die (home, hospice or hospital) as well as preparing for end of life and offering after-death care options for the family, friends or caregivers. Acting as a guide through the normal process of dying can reduce anxiety and stress in all involved. The emotional, physical and comfort measures given to the person who is at end of life as well as those who are the primary caregivers and supporters is immeasurable in working towards a positive death experience.

Protecting the death memory can be a point of reference in guiding the edeath doula in the care she or he provides. Keeping this at the forefront of the doula’s mind can help in making suggestions, providing information and leaving one’s own ego out of the equation. By doing so, the doula puts the power back into the hands of the person who is dying as well as their family and friends where it belongs.

©Julie Keon 2019

Funerals Are for the Living

I attended a rural high school where all students were bussed in from neighbouring communities unless you were one of the cool kids and had your own car. The student and staff body was made up of farming families and small town folks. There was one memorable class that had a great impact on me. One teacher, who was clearly ahead of her time, offered a death education class. Thirty years ago, this was unheard of and the school board was not particularly fond of a teacher standing her ground and taking a bus load of 16 year olds on a field trip to a funeral home in the nearest city. She told me years later that she was often threatened with being fired but she persevered and had a very positive impact on her students as a result.

Recently I purged my home of everything unnecessary and I came upon an article that I had saved from that class. It was called: “Funerals are for the Living.” I remember reading that handout for the very first time as a young student and how a light bulb went off in my head. My interest in the value of meaningful ceremony was ignited and today I am a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in creating personalized, meaningful funeral ceremonies for a living.

When someone dies, we naturally gather as a family and community to pay our respects and honour their life which most often includes a funeral service. Funerals are for the living because they help those left behind cope with the loss, grief and separation experienced after death. A ceremony that is crafted to truly reflect the deceased using carefully chosen words, music and ritual helps those who have gathered to feel a sense of celebration. Oftentimes a deep shift occurs within which helps rather than stifles their grief.

There is a rising trend towards another kind of funeral for the living that can have a positive impact on not only the one being honoured but on the guests as well. Living funerals are celebrations of life that occur before the person dies. It is a time for people to gather with their loved one who is deemed palliative to, for example, say all of the beautiful things they might have said upon their death. In this way, their words are heard by their loved one. Living funerals also have a way of shining a big bright light on the fact that death is near, that death is a reality of life and that speaking about it and even celebrating, in spite of it, can be incredibly moving, healing and freeing.

“The Poet Greets the Sun” by Ted Harrison

I attended my first living funeral in Victoria, BC in 1998. I was working in an art gallery and one of our artists was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She hosted a birthday party at the Emily Carr House and friends and colleagues gathered on a sunny day to honour her life with her instead of without her. There was story-telling, laughter, artwork, beautiful poignant speeches, and the sharing of her favourite foods. I had never experienced anything like it and have never forgotten it either. Knowing that her time was short, she wanted to have a celebration to not only mark this last birthday but to celebrate this day and her life. It was a reminder to all of us that we take so much for granted and that all we really have is the present moment~ the future will one day not be ours. Renowned artist, Ted Harrison, presented her with a beautiful original painting called “The Poet Greets the Sun” and we were all gifted with a reproduction, a keepsake that I still have to this day.

Granted, living funerals might be perceived as narcissistic and egotistical considering you are gathering your favourite people who may want to talk about how great you are and how much you will be missed. I actually think of a living funeral as having a different purpose. If I knew my time was short, I would gather my most beloved friends and family in a celebratory feast/ dance party where I would tell each of them how they had contributed positively to my life. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with sitting down and listening to kind words being spoken. Putting people on pedestals is not my thing.

There is a way to thr­­­­ow a celebration of this kind that will positively impact the honouree and the attendees. Be clear on what the purpose of it is and then plan accordingly. People need to do what works best for them. If having a living funeral will contribute to a more positive death experience then I say, “Go for it!”

©Julie Keon 2017

***Originally published as a guest post on Exit: the Life & Death Planner website (March 2017)





Rising Up After Betrayal

“You have seen my descent. Now watch my rising.” ~Rumi

I like to think I have finely-tuned intuition. My close friends and family (especially my husband) would probably agree. I don’t have special powers, I just learned a long time ago that this deep knowing was not to be ignored………….EVER. Well, in the spring of 2015, I was presented with some “red flags” in a relationship where I had placed a tremendous amount of trust. Think of the trust you place in someone who is caring for you in labour and birth…… was that level of trust. Regrettably, I chose to ignore the flags frantically waving all around me. Often, this is a result of believing that bad things don’t happen to good people, that if we just follow the rules and do everything right, the turnout will be positive and that if we trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt, they won’t do unspeakable things to us.
The circumstances of this relationship had gradually changed and morphed into something that created an underlying anxiety in me. I felt as though I had little control over what was happening. So, in an attempt at pacifying the one who ultimately betrayed me, I carefully walked on proverbial egg shells until sixteen months later when it finally came to an end. The ending came after months of mental abuse and the loss of thousands of dollars in legal fees in an attempt to get back what was rightfully mine. The unfortunate truth is that when you’re dealing with someone who possesses disordered thinking and personality traits, you recognize very quickly that using rationale, facts and intellect is as useless as using battery acid to bathe yourself.
Betrayal happens when trust is severed with someone you previously trusted wholeheartedly. It is  damaging because you have entrusted them with something meaningful like your heart, your secrets, your vulnerability and perhaps, something more concrete that you presume will be cared for on your behalf. If you have never been betrayed, it feels like a violation of your spirit and your core and depending on the depth  of the betrayal, it can be traumatic. Emotionally, you can be experiencing rage and grief almost simultaneously~ rage because someone could be so inexplicably cruel and grief because betrayal is a devastating loss. The really frustrating aspect of betrayal is that it is completely preventable. The betrayer makes a conscious choice to be cruel. They deliberately make decisions which ultimately lead to the betrayal. If you’re on the receiving end of these choices, it can be emotionally shattering.  At its worst, betrayal can cause serious, irreversible psychological damage. People can have mental breakdowns because of the realization that what they perceived as reality is just not the case.
When a betrayal occurs, the aftermath hits like a tsunami and you find yourself feeling tossed around as you try to find solid footing again.  You are plagued with questions like: “How could this happen?” and “Is this really happening?” and “Why is this happening to me?” In the darkest moments, you might even question your own sanity. The length of time it takes to recover from a betrayal depends on the circumstances. I recently caught someone I trusted in a lie. After offering opportunity for the truth to be told, this person, continued to blatantly lie to my face. This recovery period from this betrayal was short lived.  After what I have been through this past year, my instinct about these things is sharper than it’s ever been. Thankfully, I stopped that train in its tracks before the betrayal could have any lasting effects.
For the big, earth shattering betrayals, you will need to practice serious self-care. Surrounding yourself with people who love you and can help you sift through the aftermath is paramount.  The expression of the deep, primal emotions that are a part of this loss is extremely important in eventually moving past it.  Writing a letter to the betrayer and sending it (or not) can be cathartic in giving your pain a voice. Depending on the nature of the betrayal, therapy might be needed to really get you back on track in deciphering what was real and what was not.
I found the use of rituals to be particularly therapeutic in recovering from this betrayal. As much as I wanted to rush it, I 14518760_10157469687735007_1619694036_nknew that I needed to work through  a substantial amount of the emotions connected to this loss before the rituals could work their magic. Contrary to what others might think or want, a person can’t just “get on with it” after a betrayal. It takes time and energy to land on dry, solid ground again. I had to do a lot of talking aloud to process things and was surrounded by the patience, kindness and love of my husband and some carefully selected friends to do so.
The first ritual took place on September 30th. It seemed like the perfect evening to begin these rituals of letting go since there was a black moon rising that night in the fall sky. The black moon occurs when there are two new moons within the same month. It holds powerful energy to let go of that which is no longer needed and to set intentions for that which you hope to manifest. This ceremony set time aside for the release of stagnant energy of the past and acted as a stepping stone to ultimately freeing myself completely of the last two years and all that had been lost. For my release ritual, I burned a poem written for me by my betrayer many years ago. This ritual was laced in sadness as it was not the outcome I could have ever imagined or wanted.
While I purged emotionally, I was also purging “stuff” collected over my lifetime. My husband and I spent the summer upgrading our electrical in the second story of our 135 year old home. This included some renovations and a fresh coat of paint on every surface of our upstairs. I decided that with the upheaval of the last two years, it was time I rid myself of anyone and anything that no longer served me in a positive way. So began the Great Purge of 2016. My office was stripped down to a bare room before everything that needed to be sorted was piled back into it. I spent weeks and many hours sitting amongst boxes of ‘stuff’ and thousands of letters received over my lifetime. When I came across anything that was connected to my betrayer, I set it aside.
For me, an Aries, fire was a natural “go-to” in my rituals but you can also use other elements like water (dissolving paper in water or tossing stones that you have attached meaning to into a river, lake or the ocean), earth (burying something or planting a seed for renewal) or air (blowing out a candle). Actions like tearing or shredding paper items, breaking and smashing more concrete items or physically crossing a threshold like walking through a doorway or stepping over a rope are all rituals that can help you to achieve the intention of releasing and letting go of a person, situation or circumstance. What is most important is that your ritual is meaningful to you. The purpose of rituals of release is to pluck you out of ordinary time and give you space to use physical actions to bring some sort of healing to your heart.
In October, I took this collection of items that I connected to my betrayer and sat before a roaring fire. By this time, I had little emotion left about this experience and felt as though this final burning ritual would be the closure I needed to move forward. Burning these last items which once held such meaning, was euphoric. I knew that I had recovered because I no longer felt the rage and sadness that plagued me for many months. Instead, as I watched the flames engulf these last items, I felt a shift within myself and I knew that I was finally free. And I knew, without a doubt, that I would  rise up from the ashes, as I always have.


So You Want Aunt Vera to Perform Your Marriage Ceremony ~Some Important Things You Should Know

The wedding ceremony is the kick off to the entire wedding day. Without it, there wouldn’t be anything to celebrate. Meaningful ceremonies can be simple and straightforward or they can be elaborate including elements like readings and rituals. Having family and friends take part in the ceremony is a wonderful way to include those who are most important to you.  There is even a trend towards having a family member or friend officiate the wedding ceremony.

Along with this trend, are requests from couples who wish to have me present to “just sign the papers” while their beloved Uncle Phil officiates the ceremony.  What they do not realize is that this is illegal in the Province of Ontario. Many couples (and sadly, uninformed officiants), believe that the legal part of the marriage ceremony boils down to the signatures on the marriage license but this is not true. It is illegal for anyone other than the person with the legal authority to perform certain components of the marriage. This includes  the Declaration of Intent (legal part of the ceremony where we have the couple state that they have come willingly and freely to be married), the Marriage Vows  and the Declaration of Marriage.

When I receive a request like this, I am happy to co-lead the ceremony with a family member who can share in the opening words, introduce the readings or rituals and who can give the closing words. They can even help with the exchanging of rings since this is not a legal part of the ceremony. However, having Aunt Beth pronounce you married is illegal.

Photo by Igor Pavlov

Photo by Igor Pavlov

I recently read on a public Facebook page that the bride’s officiant was “just there to sign the papers” and that the guests didn’t even know she was there. She essentially blended in with the background. The bride shared that this is totally okay as long as the officiant is present. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether your officiant is an ordained minister or a clerk designated officiant or a Judge or a justice of the peace, they have to perform the legal parts of the ceremony. This is non-negotiable.  Do not risk the validity of your marriage in order to have your cousin perform the ceremony.

Sadly, there are many people who think that the officiant’s role is to say a few words and sign some papers when in fact, your officiant should be familiar with the Marriage Act, should be designated by a reputable church, organization or township and should be in good standing. Choosing your officiant is so much more than surfing the net and picking someone off of Kijiji claiming to be a marriage officiant.

Here are my tips for brides and grooms seeking a reputable Officiant:

  • Contact the officiant’s governing body to make sure they are an officiant in good standing and have the legal authority to perform marriages in your province. An authorized officiant should have no issues with sharing the contact information of their governing body. If you are concerned, simply call the Office of the Registrar to inquire about the validity of the person performing your marriage.
  • If your officiant gives the option of ‘just being there to sign the papers’ while Aunt Vera performs the ceremony, get thee to another officiant fast. Do NOT engage with an officiant who is offering illegal services.
  • Your marriage license must be dated and signed at the time of the Declaration of Marriage. You cannot sign the papers ahead of time just to omit that “boring” part of the ceremony. This, too, is illegal. The legal documents must be signed after the couple has been declared married by the officiant and dated for the day the legal marriage took place. If I am asked to perform a marriage ceremony in Quebec, I will perform a legal marriage ceremony the day before in Ontario. The couples comes to me with their Ontario marriage license and two witnesses and the legal portions are completed. I am asked if I can date the papers with the date the ceremony in Quebec will take place. I cannot. The couple can then choose if they wish their anniversary to be the day they became legally married or the day they had the full ceremony and exchanged rings.
  • Who can perform marriages? An officiant who is technically an ordained minister CANNOT perform a civil, non-religious ceremony while clerk-designated officiants (like me), Humanists, judges and justices of the peace  CANNOT perform religious ceremonies. If your officiant has the authority to perform marriages by ordination, it is illegal for them to offer civil marriages. I am not legally allowed to use the word “God” for example in my ceremonies as religious/ spiritual ceremonies belong to those who are clergy. When a couple wants a religious ‘feel’ to their ceremony, I refer them to my colleagues who are ordained ministers.
  • Be wary of officiants who bend the law, find loop holes and do not respect the guidelines and legalities outlined by the Office of the Registrar and in The Marriage Act.
Photo by Igor Pavlov

Photo by Igor Pavlov

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. The ceremony should be one of the best parts of the day. There is more to creating and leading a beautiful ceremony than just getting up and reading  words pulled from the internet. I spent eight months studying to become certified as a Life-Cycle Celebrant and specialize in the creation and delivery of meaningful, personalized ceremonies.  Make sure you have an officiant who is qualified, authorized and skilled at providing a ceremony that not only fulfills the legal requirements but leaves you and your guests feeling as though a threshold has been crossed. Leave this part of your day in the hands of a professional so that you can rest assure your ceremony is legal and valid and so Aunt Vera can sit back and enjoy the celebrations with everyone else. However, if your loved one is your dream officiant, then have the legal part done ahead of time so that they can do whatever they wish for the ceremony knowing that they are not unintentionally performing tasks they are unauthorized to do.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at or visit Service Ontario’s website for more information on getting married in Ontario HERE


Earth, Fire, Water, Air

Preface by Julie Keon: This past fall, I was notified of an inspirational article that had been published in International Doula magazine (Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015) that was written by a woman I met many, many years ago in Victoria, BC during my birth doula training. At the time of its publication, I was experiencing a deep internal struggle as I left my birthing world behind and crossed over a threshold into unknown territory; that of death midwifery. I was in the midst of my hospice volunteer training and was about to embark on a 12-week course in death midwifery. I felt like a fledgling, ill-prepared, and I was feeling all of the insecurities and anxieties one feels when you have breathed in just enough courage to propel yourself off the cliff into the unknown. Reading Marty’s words was a gift to me in my time of need and although she thanks me for my “doula” love in a time that she needed it most, I share this story with everyone as a chance for me to thank you, Marty Sutmoller, for writing this piece. In my time of need, you doula-ed me, too. Your words validated that I do have what it takes to walk this new path I am on. XO


Picture this: You are being cared for by some of the people you love most in the whole world.  The lights are low, and beautiful music is playing.  There are expert helpers present, normalizing the evolving process.  No one feels rushed, and time ceases to matter.  Moments are measured only in breaths.  Everyone present emanates gratitude for the great work you have done, and for your current intense efforts.  Your pain is manageable, and if it not, you can choose to have pain relief if you want.  You realize you cannot fight or change this process – it just is what it is.  You surrender, carefully supported by those you love.  You allow yourself to let go.  You are deeply loved.  You are dying, and this is your home death.

Providing bed-side hospice care is one area I have been trained in by our local hospice society.  Some might think it odd to work with both the beginning of life and the end, but the experiences can be strikingly similar in many ways.  I most often work with families deep in grief after the death of someone they love.  In hospice terms, it is called bereavement support.  The people I am with are immersed in grief, and are learning to cope through one unimaginably painful moment at at time; not so unlike labour — only the pain arises from a different place.

I recently facilitated a grief support workshop to train new hospice volunteers.  What struck me was the similarity between the content of this grief support training and that of the birth doula workshops I also facilitate.

As a hospice grief support volunteer:

  • you are essentially a listener
  • you place your heart forward first, and work next with your ears
  • you follow the family’s lead, and guide gently with open suggestions
  • you are intimately involved, and yet know this is not your experience
  • you ask open-ended questions, and don’t avoid difficult topics
  • you know local resources for further physical, mental, social, spiritual or emotional assistance
  • you carefully observe family dynamics
  • you always notice who in the group needs extra attention, a gentle touch, and/or a hot cup of tea
  • you realize there are moments when everyone is okay, and when everyone is not, and you try to restore the changing energies in the room
  • you align yourself next to the family, to buoy them should they go under
  • you know when it is the “right time” for you to leave, and you trust the family has the tools required to continue on their own
  • you create real and meaningful connections

And later, a family member might express to you, “I’m so glad you were there.”  Does any of this sound familiar?  I know that doulas everywhere have the skills to become grief support workers and hospice volunteers.  Whether people are “incoming” or “outgoing,” your heart-support and care is the same, and essential.

My doula career has been intimately tied to death from the onset.  My mom died four days before my birth doula training.  She died at home with family and hospice volunteers surrounding her.  After her passing, her body remained with us at home for two days.  My brother played low swoopy tones on his violin, we lit candles, told stories, sat with mom, and cried a lot.  We were lifted out of our regular life — time suspended for days.  I was registered for the birth doula workshop, and was very uncertain about attending.  My family encouraged me: “You’ve waited a long time to do this,” and “Mom was so happy you were going to become a doula.”  So, I decided to go.

I’m usually an extrovert, but at my birth doula workshop, I was quiet and withdrawn.  I sat at a back table, and observed this room full of beautiful women. They were dressed in bright swirling dresses, long hair tied up, all smiles and laughter — a positive vibe permeated the room.  Their life-filled vibrance could not have been in sharper contrast to the quiet, mournful, place of solitude I had surrounding my heart.  An engaging young woman, Julie, sat next to me, and we talked briefly before the session started.  She was concerned about becoming a doula because she wasn’t a mother yet herself.  Would clients take her seriously?  I began to re-assure her, and burst into tears.  Julie became my doula at that moment, and she doula-ed me through the whole workshop.

After introductions, our first exercise at the doula workshop was to share with one other person, the story of our own birth.  Describing my mom birthing me, thirty years earlier, was just so intense!  At times I couldn’t even breathe.  Julie mopped up a bucket of my tears.  She had her hand on my knee, asked me gentle questions, listened and stayed quietly present with me.  For the rest of the workshop, she stayed close by the whole time — through lunchtime, and even to the bus-stop afterwards.

She met me the next morning outside the classroom, hugged me and looked straight into my eyes to see how I was doing.  Later on, when the instructors asked us to switch partners, Julie didn’t — she just stayed with me.  And I never asked her to do this.  She simply tucked me, wounded, under her wing and kept me there.  During that two-day workshop, I learned, from Julie’s gentle care, how to be a doula.

Tibetan philosophy teaches that the dying process follows four natural elemental stages of outer dissolution.[1]  First, earth, as our body loses energy and strength, it becomes hard to stay up right.  Second, water, we lose control of our body fluids and begin a process of dehydration.  Third, fire, we lose the ability to regulate our temperature, and begin to get cold, at the extremities first.  And finally, air, we take fewer and fewer breaths.  In birth, the process is reversed.  The baby begins taking breaths (air), starts to regulate temperature (fire), seeks out breastmilk(water), and establishes musculature and skeletal coordination (earth).

Family support around these two deeply human experiences are very similar.  Privacy, respect, patience, and reverence are essential.  I believe all trained doulas “have what it takes” to provide exceptional care for families of the dying.  I encourage doulas everywhere to seek out community hospice centres and become involved.

In Gratitude

I’m ever grateful to my mom, my guiding light.  I am thankful to families who have invited me into their intimate circles during their huge life transitions — with all else stripped away, it is here I have glimpsed humanity’s glimmering core.  And to my dearest doula Julie, “I’m so glad you were there.”

[1] Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. p.255-257.

This appeared in the most recent issue of International Doula (Vol. 24, Issue 1, 2016) and was inspired by Marty’s piece.


Reflections at 45

Stories……..they make up our life. Each one of us has a story and in my work as a Life-Cycle Celebrant, it is a big part of my job to listen to stories and then write the words I have absorbed into a meaningful ceremony. Celebrants are, in a nutshell, modern storytellers. Without the story, it is very difficult to create a meaningful ceremony. Here is some of my story………..

I was born at 12:18am on this day forty-five years ago. I don’t remember my grand entrance but according to my mother, it was long and challenging and she remembers it with remarkable detail. My dad wasn’t allowed in the hospital room so he did what most dads of that era did; he went to the bar down the street and shared “spirits” with crocuses-3hsome friends until he heard the news that I had been born. Each spring when the crocuses break ground, I remember the part of my birth story where my mom said they were all in bloom when she brought me home from the hospital a week after my birth.

I was their second born and my sister, Lana, who was 3 at the time, was being cared for by my dad’s parents who had traveled from southern Ontario to lend a hand.  My maternal grandfather had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around the time of my birth but drove through a freak snowstorm to come and see his newest granddaughter. My mom recalls taking me to the hospital in the coming months when he was dying and how he would hold me against his old face and kiss me. He died when I was six months old and my mother says she would have died, too, (from a broken heart) if it weren’t for my older sister and I needing her care.

After waking up today with the knowledge that I have lived 45 years, a few thoughts came to mind. I don’t feel 45 and instead feel 26. One glance at my reflection in the mirror and I know I am definitely not 26. My 26 year old face did11951750_10155845706800467_6689512895882278010_nnot show the experience, wisdom and traces of adventures that my 45 year old face proudly displays. At 26, I hadn’t laughed or cried as much as I have at 45. My eyes have seen so much more and my heart has been stretched to lengths it only dreamt about at 26. My body has birthed a child and carried that child hours and hours per day for close to a decade and then some. I have accomplished so many things since 26……..a successful marriage, motherhood, published a book, travelled, reinvented myself, evolved, grown and expanded and have become increasingly aware of the fragility of this blessed gift of life.

When I decided to specialize in funerals and celebration-of-life ceremonies, I imagined the funerals of elderly people who had lived full lives. It turns out that I am most often called to assist a family in mourning and celebrating the life of a family member who died too young and often tragically. In the last ten months, I have led ceremonies for ten people who were around my age or younger and died oftentimes in a traumatic way.

It sure puts things in perspective when you tell a story that has such an abrupt ending. You can’t help but think of all the things that have been left unsaid and undone. A funeral I led recently was for a relatively young man who lived life fully. If he wanted to try something, he tried it and not in a half-assed way. Standing at his graveside, I 793799_221992647975502_658098297_oencouraged his friends and family to consider something they wanted to do; something they often referred to in this way: “One day I want to/ am going to……” Things like learning how to tango or cook french cuisine or to take up photography.  I urged them to pledge in that moment to actually do it. I have always wanted to play the drums………like the drums in a rock n’ roll band. And I know that the time is now. I am in the process of finding someone to teach me. Even the dead have profound lessons to teach us.

I recognize this deep privilege of celebrating my 45th birthday. There are so many who will never get the chance.

As I blow out my candles tonight, my wish is that today is the halfway mark of my life and that I get to continue to enjoy all of it…..the good, the bad, the easy, the tough, the glory, the hardship and the multitude of blessings. I carry with me the essence of all of those who didn’t get that chance to celebrate their 45th or next birthday and I raise my glass to them for, in their deaths, they brought deep meaning to my life.


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