Rev. Olivia: Whenever possible, I ask that the loved ones be part of these discussions with the one who is making their transition. It is an opportunity for bonding and for the one whose body is dying to feel safe, heard and loved. It’s an opportunity for the family to know that this isn’t going to be a scary, strange process, but simple and natural and profoundly loving. I include them in every step of the journey. They are going to be saying goodbye forever to the physical presence of someone they love. I could try to reassure them that there is no such thing as death; that their loved one will always live in their hearts and in the collective consciousness; but these are just words and only provide temporary consolation. Instead I simply listen and attend and feel empathy and gently explain what changes to expect so that they can travel the journey with their loved one with love and acceptance rather than fear and denial.
The MOON: What is your perspective on what happens to a person when they die?
Rev. Olivia: I have spent the last twenty years delving deeply into the question and although I could share my conclusions thus far, they are only that—my conclusions based on the experiences, beliefs and opinions of others and a feeling deep within me that arose from being fully present to my inquiry. Each person must come to that truth, that deep knowing for themselves. I think cradling “I don’t know” in all its vulnerability is the true gift of death—because in that state there can be no ego. The ego wants to know and understand and protect. Death doesn’t allow any of that nonsense. The mystery is the gift. What I do know is that my heart will stop beating and electrical signals will stop firing in my brain and that life force will cease to course through my veins. I also have a sense that the accumulation of my thoughts, karma, and beliefs – the things which are not of the physical, but which comprise the luminous energy field—will separate from the physical body when the life force stops. Having watched many bodies over the three days following death, I have come to see that the luminous body, which is still quite apparent hours after death, gradually loosens and separates, and by the third day has completely gone from the physical. The physical body is made of matter, the luminous body of light. It is the light body that we feel in the room after death. The physical body is just a shell, something we need to honor, take care of, and dispose of thoughtfully, but it is no longer important. The light body—that is the real one. That is the driver of our physical shell, our whole life. That is who is listening to me now; who will read this article; who is typing these words. The luminous body is where we reside. This body cannot die. Light is energy that simply changes form.
The MOON: Can you share with us some examples of deaths you helped to midwife?
Rev. Olivia: I am helping, or rather witnessing, an incredible man right now in his process. It is an honor to be alongside Richard because he is awake to what is happening. He is courageous and open and honest and vulnerable. He is watching his body die and marveling at it, rather than recoiling in horror. He is accepting it. He is putting his things in order, selling his art and his sculptures to pay for his end-of-life needs so that he leaves no debt. I took his cremation casket to his house, and he decided he wanted it painted gold. So his friends painted it for him, and then he decided to throw a party. He wanted to talk about the mystery of life and death. He doesn’t pretend to know what’s going to happen. He hopes he will become a spark in the cosmic field or merge with eternity. But he wanted to gather his friends together and invite them to talk about the mystery. So I helped him produce that event. I took the cremation box over and he offered it to the guests for “death rehearsals.” He invited them to lay in it so they could begin to experience what it would be like to be dead and laying in a coffin. It was amazing. People are still talking about it. People who couldn’t make it to the event still write to me asking, “When is the next death rehearsal?” so I can put them on the waiting list. People are intrigued, they want to experience this. They need role models, people who have gone before fearlessly, boldly, demonstrating a “good death.”
I visit Richard every week and listen and help him define his priorities. I listen to what is really important to him, what he really needs to do and say before he says goodbye, and then I help facilitate that. Now we’re having the sale of his art so that he goes peacefully, knowing that he is not a financial burden on anyone, and that people who appreciate his art will have it in their homes.
I’ve helped Richard get signed up for hospice, so now he has the physical care he needs. He doesn’t have to worry that he will be in pain. The nurse sees him twice a week and volunteers help with errands and such. He’s in good hands, so that helps him relax and let go. It’s all a process of relaxing into it, and letting go so that dying isn’t a fight or a struggle, but simply an acceptance, a preparation for the biggest event of our lives. And, shouldn’t this be the most glorious event? After all, we’ve spent our whole lives getting here. I think it’s the grand finale, something wilder than our imaginings—an orgasm if you will. We start with an orgasm; I think we end with one too. But sadly, most people are too consumed with fear and sadness and pain to notice it. I don’t want to miss my final orgasm into the next world, and I want to help others make sure they don’t miss theirs too.
Richard has had his “mystery party.” His final art sale is coming up, and there will be other ceremonies before he transitions. As his death midwife, or “Anam Cara,” which is Celtic for “soul friend,” I will hold the space for Richard to maintain control of his dying process, honoring his soul in every possible way. That means that my opinions, judgments, and beliefs all are irrelevant. Richard being seen and heard in a way that he has never been seen or heard before is my goal and my sincere intention. Nothing else matters. When I do this for him, the gift is mine for all the while I am with Richard my own ego has to quiet down, take a back seat. The ego is about survival, and Richard is dying. He doesn’t need anyone talking to him about survival. He doesn’t need life support; he needs death support. That is the role of the death midwife—to give death support. To hold one in the days and hours of their dying; to see them; to hear them; to hold them in the Light of who they truly are.
The MOON: I understand that you also offer assistance with home-directed funerals. Please tell us about this.
Rev. Olivia: Actually, my work as a death midwife began as a home funeral guide, one who educates and supports families in caring for their own dead, at home. Most people don’t realize that they have the right to act as the funeral director for their loved one after they die. They don’t have to hire a funeral director. They can care for the body of their loved one at home and hold a wake, or vigil, for up to three or four days until burial or cremation. I guide families in how to prepare the body—bathing, anointing, dressing and creating a sacred space to lay the body “in honor” in the home for viewing. I show them how to preserve the body with dry ice and how to complete and file all the necessary paperwork. It’s a beautiful process—one that provides the opportunity for profound healing and closure. Families decorate the cremation box and have time to partake in religious or cultural rituals, privately, in their own way, at their own pace. Almost everyone who has attended a home funeral says that they would like this for themselves. It sounds new and radical, but actually it’s an ancient practice that was performed by everyone, worldwide, until the last century, when it was taken over by professional undertakers. I believe it’s time for us to reclaim this ritual, which helps people to come to an understanding about death, to integrate it into the circle of life, to begin to accept it with a sense of peace, rather than recoil from it in fear.
I help families prepare for a home funeral. I teach classes and workshops, educating people of their rights, and supporting them through the process. The home funeral movement is not a profession like the funeral industry; it is an education service, empowering families to care for their own so that they can have their own unique and profound experience of death, which in turn, empowers them to lead more meaningful lives. The Home Funeral Alliance is a national organization dedicated to educating the public of their rights and providing important resources for families wishing to reclaim this ritual for themselves. www.homefuneralalliance.org
The MOON: What about a person who has died traumatically, without an opportunity to prepare? Can you help them and/or their families after the fact?