Respect for life extends to death and burial

Matthew Whisman

It seems like a paradox to write about burying the dead in a column meant to focus on Respect Life Month. But the truth is, providing indigent burial to those who die without family or resources is a final act of bestowing dignity and respecting life.

And it is changing the way I live my own life.

As director of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Indigent Burial Program, I have facilitated 270 burials and cremations since July 2021. Our program is funded by Louisville Metro government and carried out in collaboration with the coroner’s office, Metro Parks and Owen Funeral Homes.

It provides dignity for the deceased as well as comfort and meaning to their friends, families and caregivers. Every person for whom we conduct a burial receives a full service. Volunteers, ranging from men in their 80s to students from local Catholic high schools, gather around a casket to honor the individual with Scripture, responsive readings and prayer.

My responsibilities often include finding and notifying family of their loved one’s death. Many times these individuals no longer had a relationship, so the survivor’s response to the death can swing dramatically from sadness to disdain.

Some are heartbroken. Some have actually said to me, “So what do you want me to do about it?” Our humanity is on full display when death is present.

Helping people navigate the death of someone they loved — or at the very least were related to — led me last year to complete training as an end-of-life doula. Now, if you’re like me, you think of a doula as someone who provides women and their families physical and emotional support through pregnancy and birth. But in this case, a doula is more of a coach who can help a person in their transition out of this world.

End-of-life doulas help the dying person and their circle of loved ones. They provide mental, physical, spiritual and emotional support and advocate for the wishes of the dying individual. Really, families and friends have been end-of-life doulas for one another for centuries. But as families increasingly live far from one another, death doulas now help fill the gap.

Some of the specific duties of an end-of-life doula might include helping the family and their loved one talk about death, provide grief support before and after the death, work with funeral professionals on behalf of the dying person and family, help the individual write their own obituary and create a peaceful atmosphere. Really, the responsibilities will be as varied as the individuals.

End-of-life doulas also learn about the many different cultural traditions that play a role in the lives of the people they serve. We all need to understand and honor the fact that cultural traditions influence end-of-life decision-making.

Some cultures, for instance, will make decisions as a family while others are more individualistic. Religion will often affect whether someone chooses to be an organ donor.

For me, being certified as an end-of-life doula informs my work as director of the Indigent Burial Program. It helps me to understand the different cultural approaches to death that I encounter in an increasingly diverse Louisville. It helps me embrace the grieving process more fully and respond more compassionately when a next of kin is angry or harsh about their relative. And it helps me to provide the most caring service possible.

My goal, every day, is to respect life by providing dignity in death. Turns out, there is no paradox at all.

The Record
Written By
The Record
More from The Record
Life, history of diaconate are explored in new book
By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer A new book — “The Life...
Read More
One reply on “Respect for life extends to death and burial”
  1. Matthew, I appreciate the information you provided on the responsibilities of end-of-life-doula. So many people say to me, “thank you for the work that you do,” or “God bless you.” My reality of “being” outweighs the “doing” in my work as a doula. Sitting bedside with someone near or at the end-of-life is an enlightening experience. I am honored to have the opportunity to be supportive of those near the end of life. Individuals with family dynamics or those dying alone would benefit from the skills and services that end-of-life doulas bring into their sacred space. There’s no paradox at all. To respect one’s death, you must respect their life.
    Thank you.

Comments are closed.