Spring Issue 2022

A Guide to Departing for the Left Behind

By Sarah Schmitt

I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
Traveling through this world of woe.
Yet there's no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
"Poor Wayfaring Stranger," traditional

Just hand me over to a stranger,” he said, embarrassed at the idea of my having to prepare his vulnerable body, both literally and ritually unclean. My poor partner had to endure an information dump — unsolicited — about the home funerary workshop I attended earlier that evening. I had been taking photos the entire time, but something about the intense artistic and technical fidgeting of needing to operate a camera meant that I absorbed every detail offered by the presenter, who is also my best friend. I was anxious to tell someone else what I learned, and so he got an earful about provisional death certificates, shroud sizes, and rigor mortis. He tried to change the subject a few times. He was visibly uncomfortable; death has that power over us.

Earlier this year, when Lauren told me she was going to become a death doula, I was a little surprised. We often joked about the irreverent ways we want the other to behave at our funerals, the inappropriate songs we wanted played, and even our preferred method of disposal (ashes in an Altoids tin for me). Of course, these were honest and dirty secrets that were meant just for each other’s ears, reserved for only the closest, oldest, and dearest friend.

Lauren and I met as preteens at Girl Scout camp, and we have been together ever since. We cleaved to each other as surrogate sisters and were inseparable as teenagers, neither of us having any siblings. Through college, we were apart and often went months without speaking, but we always picked up exactly where we left off. We were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, and she is my son’s godmother while I am her son’s auntie.

Lauren Hunter-Smith, a death doula, explaining funerary practices during an at-home workshop
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Schmitt

Aside from our candidness of scoffing at death, it’s also important to note that our joking took place before two full years of a global pandemic. Sickness, suffering, death, and dying have since become daily front-page news. Safety has necessitated the winnowing down — and even neglecting — of our social funerary practices. A return to older ways such as intimate outdoor, graveside-only services occurred alongside innovation like drive-by visitation. Such a large cultural shift is bound to silence the laughter. Lauren and I both lost people, with varying degrees of proximity, to the disease itself and its unintended consequences like loneliness and isolation. This loss is enough to make even the most cynical person find interest and respect for how we care for the deceased. It also allows for the re-examination of how we choose to honor them.

It’s not the first time in history that a culture, when constantly pestered with their mortality, has become a bit more curious or preoccupied with death rituals and memorials. Western cultures in the Victorian Era are accused of having an obsession with death and memento mori. Communities were devastated by multiple epidemics of cholera, smallpox, influenza viruses, typhus, and yellow fever —  not to mention other non-pathogenic threats to mortality. As a result, the bereaved wove the deceased’s hair into intricate wreaths and jewelry, photographed the dead in serene poses, and donned elaborate mourning clothes. These rituals and their material culture can be found in museums and archives across the United States. Tangible artifacts make as much commentary on class and gender as they do of death’s eager presence in the lives of the creators.

Lauren walks a workshop participant through the process of cleansing a body
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Schmitt

The reactions to Lauren’s career path were polar among friends and family. She said,

“In my experience people are either intrigued and fascinated or creeped out. There’s no in between.”

While I was surprised that Lauren chose death in particular, I wasn’t surprised that she would take on such a mystifying and complicated calling. She does unconventional things all the time, simply because she can. For example, she began creating watercolor and ink drawings of the female reproductive system made up of botanical and earth elements (e.g., ovaries as roses, uterine lining as a celestial sky) and gifted them to the midwives who oversaw her prenatal care and helped deliver her son. She built raised beds for flowers just to give them away in thrifted vases. She’s creative, resourceful, empathetic, and emotionally tough — no one better to confront, and then embrace, the Grim Reaper.

I think the reactions of others has less to do with Lauren, and more to do with our culture’s monolithic, prescribed, and distant method for attending to the dead. In fact, there are many conventions, like embalming, body transportation, and concrete vaults that are presumed to be law. And while we may appreciate the option of paying competent professionals in the funerary industry to address the grittier details, this is merely one option. There is something to be said for the choice of conducting a few, or even all, of the bittersweet duties oneself as a form of active grieving.

That’s where the death doula comes in. Many are familiar with the role and duties of a birth doula, the one who helps the expectant choose the desired birth experience and acts as an advocate through that process. The death doula does the same, only on the other side of creation. It’s a holistic certification process that requires recipients to learn therapeutic arts, diverse religious practices, human anatomy, and even the law. For her certifications and accreditations through the End of Life Doula Alliance and National Home Funeral Alliance, Lauren went on an anthropological journey. She attended workshops with the Religious Society of Friends and homeopathic healers. She interviewed funeral directors, hospice nurses, religious leaders, and cemetery sextons to synthesize knowledge about the entire human death experience, both past and present.  With this training, death doulas become ushers, healers, teachers, attendants, and most of all – advocates for the dying.

Lauren weights the eyes of the "deceased"
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Schmitt

One of Lauren’s first actions towards establishing her death doula practice was to invite several close friends over for a home funerary workshop. She asked me to participate and take photographs. While charging camera batteries and ensuring my SD cards had ample memory, I tried to envision what the workshop would look like. When I told people my Friday night plans, they didn’t believe me.

“Your neighbors are going to think we’re making a blood sacrifice,” I texted her. It did look like witchcraft. Lauren’s friend, Carrie, volunteered to be “the body,” and Lauren requested that we all wear black or Carrie’s favorite color, gray, in her honor. This level of detail — acknowledging the deceased’s favorite color —  seems trivial, but it speaks to the simple ways we keep the corporeally dead spiritually alive. I was reminded of my paternal grandmother’s funeral in which most of the women wore red (her favorite color) without planning or consulting one another. Our memories are the richest memorial gardens. They are vibrant with the combined, sensory minutiae of our loved ones’ drug store talcum powder or the feel of their rough, oily canvas work overalls.

My favorite service Lauren provides is helping clients design legacy projects. None of us want to be forgotten, and Lauren helps her clients design exactly how they want to be remembered. She facilitates everything from recipe books to memorial tattoos, all unique and bespoke to the arrangements of the living before they become the dead.

We each underwent a short, private interview with Lauren beforehand to address any underlying concerns or triggers we may encounter. She asked if we’d experienced a loss recently or if there would be anything emotionally charged about seeing someone dead, even if only for pretend. I had to come to terms with my maternal grandmother’s lackluster COVID-era homecoming, which involved a funeral mass with photos of parishioners taped to chairs as an audience. The service was followed by just my mother, aunt, and me witnessing two gravediggers tamping her ashes into the dirt like ground-up espresso beans. She was a spitfire who loved a party, and she deserved more. We chose to find it funny instead of Flannery O’Connor-level grotesque and sad.

Lauren’s dad and his partner hosted the event in their backyard, and “the stage” was a massage table under a tent. Lauren offered aromatherapy, sound therapy, and/or auric massage for those who arrived early, while explaining how each of those practices might benefit the dying and bereaved. On a metaphysical level, auric massage is meant to settle the energies of the recipient through the movement and vibrations of the practitioner’s hands. Practically, it’s a way of caring for, calming, and nurturing someone who may be in too much pain or too uncomfortable with a stranger’s direct touch.

Workshop participants are encouraged to wear the "deceased's" favorite color
or black so as not to be a distraction
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Schmitt

Nerves were to be expected as we were all strangers confronted by pretend death. It rained only 45 minutes prior, and our surroundings were humid and green. Carrie was boosted onto the massage table and placed under a quilt, in imitation of someone actively dying or recently deceased. It was a sign to begin. The mood became somber and reverent as everyone listened to Lauren speak. She took us through our choices, which ranged from the interment of the deceased to how we might support caregivers of the dying. I milled around the tent with my camera and tripod, trying not to break the spell. Carrie was treated as a real, if rather talkative, corpse. Lauren covered the basics of washing and shrouding. It was lovely to see previously unconnected folks washing a mutual friend with damp cloths and Castile soap and then decorating her with Lauren’s homegrown flowers. Although it was just practice, everyone behaved as if they were involved in a true ritual moment.

In Western culture, there is an obsession with re-animated corpses and their decay, (e.g., zombies, mummies, and other undead). Coroners and morticians exist within the liminal categories of “creepy” and “necessary.” The dead are viewed as both literally and figuratively dirty, and sometimes even dangerous. In some faith traditions, there are hard-and-fast rules around who is allowed to wash and prepare the dead. It should come as no surprise that this is often the exclusive duty of older women. Lauren is keenly in tune to the interconnectedness of birth and death, and the role of women in both, particularly those of “child-bearing age” and older (e.g., mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc.)

I have found my somewhat recent experience with birth and labor really helpful in understanding our life cycle, from swaddle to shroud. Our mamas labor for us the first time around, but in the end we must labor through death ourselves.
Interview with Lauren Hunter-Smith conducted by Sarah Schmitt

“Does anyone have any questions?” Lauren asked after going through the final topic of burial vessel options. I was interested in the cardboard coffin concept, but not the blandness of it. “Can you decorate the cardboard box?” “Well…” she started. “Like with glitter or paint?” I clarified. According to Lauren, for a natural or green burial, cardboard coffins can only be decorated with biodegradable matter like leaves and flowers, but not glue, paint, or glitter. However, public vault and coffin cemeteries are less particular about non-organic décor on the cardboard coffins. Unfortunately, due to the bylaws of individual cemeteries, there are no public, fully green cemeteries in Kentucky. As a result, Lauren’s ultimate goal is to start a green cemetery with burial pods and other sustainable options; however, there is still a misinformation barrier to overcome. In continuing her education, she recently enrolled in a “Green Cemetery Masterclass” through Redesigning the End. She even posted a whimsical first-day-of-school photo on her Bluegrass Death Doula Instagram account, complete with a colorful chalkboard sign and shovel. The humor is still alive and well.

Everyone’s stance relaxed as we transitioned from the mock ritual to a more social time. It was a bit like the practice of returning to the house after a funeral to have refreshments. We all sat and chatted at her father’s table while drinking homemade wine and eating assorted mini cheesecakes from a local bakery. Rather than swapping stories about Carrie, we had the rare benefit of getting to know “the deceased” at her own wake. All jokes about a coven meeting aside, the magic was palpable. Those present gained a semblance of control over death and dying. We reflected on the strange parts of the event, vented frustrations about the pandemic, and talked about what we do in the other parts of our lives.

Screen Shot 2022-02-07 at 2.21.17 PM
Photograph courtesy of Bluegrass Death Doula's Instagram

At home, lying in bed with sniffles from the rain, I used a method Lauren taught me, which she learned from one of her death doula courses, of massaging the sinuses. I couldn’t shake the beautiful image of Carrie’s simple gray shroud, a cotton queen-size sheet, covered in vibrant orange flowers. There was nothing unnerving or grotesque about the sight of the body-shaped parcel. I compared her image harshly to the embalmed corpses I had seen at funeral parlors. Those that rested awkwardly in overelaborate coffins that might never decompose. I evoked their yellowed, emaciated faces — mouths glued shut, resting on satin pillows they’d never have used in life. I recalled how I had to conduct my own rituals outside their funerals to even begin coming to terms with their deaths, let alone begin the process of mourning and grieving.

I remembered the hospice nurse who called my father’s time of death on her watch. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the silver sugar-skull pendant around her neck. It had given me an inner smirk in a moment when I simply did not know what to do. “What do we do now?” my mother had asked. She’d been by his side for months. She knew all too well how to be present for the sick and dying, but doing right by the dead was something new. “You should do whatever you want,” the nurse said. This is exactly what my mother needed, permission to “stand down” and transition into a life without my father, at least in his corporeal form. So we did what she suggested. We went down the hospital elevator, out the front door, and my mother took a pieta-style photo in the arms of the Sister of Charity of Nazareth statue she’d passed every morning for two long months. I went home and wrote a performance-oriented, yet sincere eulogy. We let the professionals handle the rest.

The "deceased" wrapped in a gray burial shroud
Photography courtesy of Sarah Schmitt

But next time, I know I have it in me to weight their eyes, brush their teeth and close their mouth, cleanse their flesh of physical and spiritual dirt, swaddle them as their midwife and mother once did, sprinkle them with oils and flowers, and send them off with love. Unless, like my partner, being handed over to a stranger is what they really want, and then they shall have their choice. They will live on in vermillion and male cardinal’s wings, the smell of pine sawdust, the cold roughness of galvanized metal, the taste of a perfectly-baked pound cake, and always in the humming of a tune, long gone from the radio.

When death shall close these eyelids,
And this heart shall cease to beat,
And they lay me down to rest
In some flowery bound retreat
Will you miss me...miss me when I'm gone?
"Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," The Carter Family

Sarah M. Schmitt is a folklorist specializing in oral history methodology who seeks to connect authentically with Kentucky communities and uplift the rich and vibrant culture of the Commonwealth’s people. As a founding steering committee member of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, she works to bridge perceived divides to unite Kentuckians through bold, clever, and empathetic practices. She works for the Kentucky Arts Council as the arts organization and access director and has previously served as the oral history administrator for the Kentucky Oral History Commission and as a Folklife Specialist for the Kentucky Folklife Program. Sarah holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history and a master’s degree in folk studies, both from Western Kentucky University. She lives in Lexington, Ky., with her son Everett and chihuahua Layla. Right now, she enjoys making pizza, hearing a good ghost story, rug hooking, thrift shopping, and coffee, but that could easily change at a moment’s notice.