Rev. Olivia Bareham–or simply, Rev. Olivia–is an ordained minister of healing. Originally from England, she holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of London, and a bachelor’s degree in natural theology in sacred healing from the Healing Light Seminary of Glendale, CA. She is also a certified death midwife. Her experience in the fields of auxiliary nursing, elder care and hospice volunteering inspired her to investigate a more meaningful and personal alternative to traditional funeral practices. She created Sacred Crossings, in Los Angeles, California, to offer ministerial services, education and guidance to families wishing to create meaningful funerals at home. Sacred Crossings offers a certificate program in death midwifery covering all aspects of conscious dying, after-death care and family-directed funerals. She is also a writer, producer and public speaker and a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, http://www.homefuneralalliance.org.
The MOON: What is a death midwife?
Rev. Olivia: Although death midwifery is an ancient practice, the actual term, “death midwife,” is a relatively new one and seems to have different meanings in different parts of the world. Other terms are death doula, or soul midwife, but in general a death midwife is one who assists an individual and their family in the transition of death, just as a birth midwife assists the baby and the mother in the transition of birth. I have been serving the Los Angeles community as an interfaith minister and home funeral guide for the past nine years, and have formulated my own definition of a death midwife, since my work expands beyond death through the wake, vigil and funeral until burial or cremation. As I define it, A death midwife shepherds individuals toward a conscious dying experience; guides loved ones in after-death care of the body; and empowers families to create personal and deeply meaningful funerals at home.
The MOON: How did you get involved in this work?
Rev. Olivia: I’ve always been naturally drawn to working with those facing end-of-life, but it wasn’t until I assisted my own mother as she made her transition that I began investigating ways to transform our experience of death from something dreaded to the profoundly beautiful experience that it is. My mother died peacefully at home, on hospice, and after she died the hospice nurse invited me to help bathe her body. It was the epiphany of my life. While I cradled my mother’s frail body in my arms, the nurse hummed softly as she gently washed her back with lavender soap. It was like falling into the abyss of eternal love, deep and other-worldly, just like it had been when holding my daughter in my arms seconds after her birth. I felt this ritual of bathing the dead held an opportunity to know something, something universal, that couldn’t be read about, could only be experienced. I knew I wanted others to have this experience, one that could help them process loss and open them to a new awareness of life and death.
My sister and I dressed mother in her white burial trousseau. We placed a yellow rose on her chest and laid her on the hospice bed in the living room. People came to visit, to say goodbye, to bring flowers. They stayed for hours; they didn’t want to leave. They could feel the presence of something profound in this liminal space. They sat at the table at one side of the room and drank tea and shared stories and welcomed more people as they arrived. My mother lay peacefully on the bed with her bible and her rose at the other side of the room. I pulled up a chair between life at the tea table and death on the bed and I felt whole for the first time in my life.
I wanted it go on and on. Something was happening…my mother seemed connected to this space, her home, these people, perhaps even her body. I felt she liked what was going on here in her living room. After four or five hours, the guests began to leave. Neither my sister nor I were ready for our mother to be gone, not just yet, but we didn’t know then about home funerals, so we called the undertakers and they took her away. They put her in a black plastic bag and zipped her up and took her out into the snow across the lawn and into the van. But it was too soon. I wasn’t finished. Something was happening in the house, something indescribable—something out of this world, yet of this world—and there had been an opportunity to get to know this “something,” but the opportunity was taken away by the kind strangers in black suits who thought they were doing us a favor.
I felt ripped off, incomplete and inconsolable. I knew that this was wrong, that we should have had more time. So when I returned to Los Angeles, I made it my mission to find out how we could keep that window open…How we could take care of the bodies of our loved ones at home. Why not? They were dead! They were washed and dressed and looked beautiful. Why should we hand them over to strangers? Wasn’t there a way we could keep them at home until burial or cremation? This inquiry led me to Jerrigrace Lyons, who taught people how to care for their own after death. I read everything I could get my hands on, became certified as a home funeral guide and founded Sacred Crossings, determined to combine my training as an inter-faith minister and now a home funeral guide to help families hold the window to eternity open and experience death close up and first hand for as long as they needed to. I was a death midwife. It felt like slipping my hand into an old familiar glove.
The MOON: How do you prepare people for dying?
Rev. Olivia: Unfortunately, because death and the dying process have been taken out of our culture, it is no longer a natural part of the circle of life. Dying is seen as failure; tragic and morbid. How do you prepare someone for that? I think that the main purpose of a death midwife today is to gently re-educate the dying, so that death is seen as the pinnacle of life—the grand finale of a long and fabulous journey. It should be celebrated whenever it comes, for no matter the circumstances, the person dying is being released into the arms of love. What could be better than that?
There is no cookie-cutter formula for preparing to die. It’s an intimate, individual process between oneself and one’s definition of the divine. I ask questions that lead to forgiveness of others and self, to acceptance of everything without judgment, to embracing fear and sorrow and loss, and that also lead to a profound sense of gratitude. I think we need to focus on these things every day, whatever stage of life we are in, whatever our health, career or spiritual path. This way, whenever our body dies, we will be prepared, and the last words on our lips will be “Thank you!”
Most people unfortunately don’t begin to investigate death until they have a terminal diagnosis from a doctor. A professional has to announce, “You are going to die,” when the fact is, we all have a terminal diagnosis; it’s called life. We are all going to die, so why not start today to investigate what this really means? What’s going to happen to my body? Is there an “I” that is separate from my body? If so, where is that going to go? I teach a class in “conscious dying,” during which we look closely at these questions. We begin to investigate in a safe, caring and compassionate space what it really means to die.
When I sit bedside with someone who is actively dying, I meet them wherever they are. I fall in love with whoever they are, for whoever they are is absolutely incredible, a marvel of nature, someone to be revered, honored and adored. When a person experiences this, they feel seen. No matter what they have done throughout their life, now it is all irrelevant. Now there is no time to change anything, no time for regrets. The only thing that matters is that someone sees who they really are…who they really were all along, but just forgot in their hurry to do something, be someone, achieve something. So I just sit and I see them. I meet “the beloved” in each person that is dying, so for perhaps one moment, they can deeply relax and sink into the essence of who they truly are.
For those who call me before they are in the final stages, which is by far the better time to call a death midwife, I help them to get their affairs in order. This includes their health care directive, which assigns an agent who can speak for them regarding their health care when they can no longer speak for themselves. I help them to identify what “life support” means to them and when they would want life support to cease and “death support” to take over. We talk about how they would like to be taken care of in their final days and write it down so that family members will know how to care for them according to their wishes.
Most of the people who call me have already been dealing with a terminal illness for some time. They are perhaps tired of treatments and are now investigating what’s next. I help them to take that step from “buying more time” in hope of a cure, to accepting the natural stage of end-of-life and preparing for a conscious, peaceful transition.
I also help them complete the death care directive. This is a booklet I created because many clients had completed a health care directive but hadn’t begun to think about what they wanted to happen after death. I saw how this caused unnecessary stress among family members who had to make important decisions about their deceased loved one’s body. So I talk to the individual about their choices for after-death care. Would they like a traditional funeral or a home funeral? Who would they like to bathe and anoint their body? What would they like to be dressed in? Do they want a pine box? A decorated cremation casket, or a simple shroud? What would they like the eulogy to include? The obituary? There are so many questions. We can gently discuss these difficult, yet important issues and, interestingly, it actually helps bring comfort and peace to the one who’s dying. Putting your things in order is the first step to consciously letting go, consciously accepting the natural process of the death of the body.
The MOON: How do you prepare their loved ones?