Terms for conditions

Charles Cowling

The natural death movement in the UK was pioneered by the good old Natural Death Centre. Its philosophy grew out of the natural childbirth movement and its principles are broadly the same. It believes that by taking control and keeping interventions by strangers to a minimum, we improve the quality of dying for the dying person and its impact on his or her carers. In the matter of caring for the dead, it believes that taking control is therapeutic.

It all makes perfectly good sense. And there’s the nice symmetry of birth and death.

There’s also some symmetry in the vocabulary used. We have home births and we have home funerals, both unobjectionable terms. We have midwives and we have death midwives – or midwives to the dying. And that’s where I falter. A death midwife? There’s a contradiction there, isn’t there? Birth and death are only analogous up to a point, surely? And there’s an uncomfortable resonance with Sam Beckett’s words in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more … down in the grave, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.”

Over in the US (where the home funeral movement is just that, a movement, unlike over here, where it’s more or less dead stopped), that wise old bird Lisa Carlson has just spoken about this. Lisa is the grand pioneer of home funerals over there; it was her book Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, currently being re-written, that broke the ground.

Here’s what she says:

The term “death midwife” has been a struggle for me. At one point, it seemed like an ideal term for conveying quickly what most of you do or want to do. I’ve come to feel that “home funeral guide,” however, is a far more prudent choice, as it preserves the “education” image when compared to the hands-on “midwife” image … So many of us in the helping careers want to *do* things for people, to feel needed, including funeral directors, too. But I can assure you from personal experience that empowering others is a much headier “high” than being thanked for something fairly temporary that I did to or for them. (Teach a man to fish . . .)

Home funeral guide. Yup. Like it. Let’s have more of you!

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