Before Valli Warren’s husband died last year after a long illness, the Stoughton couple knew they wanted a home funeral and green burial.
But they weren’t sure how to make those things happen. They turned to Sharon Stewart, who delivered ice packs to preserve the body, shared videos about how to wrap it in a shroud and taught pallbearers how to carry it out of the house on a board.
Stewart also helped Warren file paperwork, including a permit letting her transport her husband to Circle Cemetery, near Barneveld, where he was laid to rest without being embalmed or using a casket or vault.
“She walked me through every phase,” Warren said.
Stewart is a death midwife, a new kind of occupation that provides emotional, spiritual and practical support to families before and after death — in addition to, or instead of, hospice care and funeral homes.
The service, which has emerged around the country over the past decade, is analogous to what birth midwives do compared to obstetricians. Some who offer the assistance call themselves death doulas or end-of-life midwives.
‘Back to their roots’
Whatever the title, the providers say they help people “take back” the death process from hospitals and funeral homes. Services include leading family discussions about death planning, sitting vigil with people as they die, helping family and friends wash the body afterward and aiding in tasks such as selecting memorial cards, sending obituaries to newspapers and closing social media accounts. It often involves home funerals or green burials.
“We’re taking families back to their roots, the tradition of when we were born and when we died in our own homes,” said Stewart, a former detective who lives near Brooklyn, south of Madison. “We laid in honor in our parlors, and the community came together to provide care for the family.”
Liz Humphries, a former birth midwife and hospice nurse who recently added an end-of-life doula service to Seasons of Life, her senior care company in Middleton, said, “It’s about reclaiming a really sacred and beautiful human experience.”
Mary Paulauskis, a former hospice nurse from Madison, has added what she calls end-of-life transitions counseling to her business, Mindful Awakenings, through which she teaches meditation.
Paulauskis focuses on helping people think about who and what they want around them as they die. She also coaches loved ones on what to say to a dying person and how to interact — letting them know it’s OK to lie next to the person if they want to, for example.
“It’s creating a space of whatever the patient said they want,” Paulauskis said.
Many people don’t realize that there are several ways to dispose of bodies without embalming, including new, greener types of cremation, said Angie Buchanan, a death midwife in Waukesha who trains death midwives around the country. She informs clients of the options and guides them through their choice.
“We’re the water that runs between the rocks of the medical profession and the funeral industry,” Buchanan said.
Dr. Toby Campbell, chief of UW Health’s palliative care program and a board member of Agrace Hospice and Palliative Care in Fitchburg, said he understands why death midwives are catching on. He said hospice care typically includes two or three visits a week from a nurse or social worker, and an occasional call from a doctor.
“That leaves about 99 percent of the time you and your family are on your own,” Campbell said. “That’s a big space. There are giant gaps between the health care system and death, even including hospice.”
Jim Olson, president-elect of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, said caring for a body after death and managing a funeral are big jobs. Most people will continue to seek help from funeral directors, he said.
Death midwifery is “another alternative for families, which we think is great,” said Olson, who owns Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan. “Am I afraid it’s going to affect my business? No, absolutely not.”
There is no licensure or government certification for death midwives. Experienced practitioners, such as Stewart and Buchanan, offer training, as does the New Jersey-based International End of Life Doula Association, which held a session in Madison last year.
Many training programs offer their own certification. The burgeoning field is in a similar situation to massage therapy in the 1990s, before doctors pushed for its regulation, Buchanan said. In Wisconsin, certification for massage therapists started in 2003, with licensure beginning in 2010.
Fees for death midwives vary. Buchanan said she charges $100 for a consultation and up to $2,000 for services covering the whole death process. Stewart has accepted donations of $100 or $200 from some clients, but she doesn’t plan to establish rates until she retires from her day job, at the state public defender’s office, and devotes more time to death midwife duties.
Paulauskis said she plans to charge $25 to $50 for a counseling session and negotiate rates for other services but let people pay what they can. An academic adviser at the UW-Madison School of Social Work, she plans to continue making her living in other ways.
Humphries, who started her end-of-life doula service last month, said she might charge $40 to $100 an hour but offer a sliding-fee scale for people with low incomes.
Humphries is also an organizer of Walking Each Other Home Madison, a group that started in 2014 to help people carry out home funerals and green burials. People can rent the group’s home funeral kit, which includes a body board, ice packs, soap, lotion, diapers, latex gloves and small bags of rice to place over the dead person’s eyes to keep them closed.
‘The personal touch’
Stewart, who has long volunteered at Monroe Clinic’s hospice program, said she saw the need for a more personal death service after her brother died in a car crash at age 19. She was 21.
Police came to the house in the middle of the night, told her mother her son was dead and left. Stewart wanted to see her brother’s body before he was embalmed, but the funeral director wouldn’t let her, she said.
“There had to be a better way,” she said.
Later, as a detective for the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department in Darlington, Stewart tried to deliver death notifications with more sensitivity. But she wasn’t able to do all she wanted to help grieving families. After a shoulder injury forced her to retire, she discovered death midwifery.
“I thought, ‘This is it. This is the personal touch. This is the attention that families need,’ ” she said.
At a death midwife class she taught last month, Stewart told students to help dying people reconcile with others if they ask, separate arguing family members at the bedside if necessary and encourage loved ones to say goodbye and leave the room if the dying person wants to die alone.
“Your job as a death midwife is to be an advocate for that dying person,” she said.
When Laurie Larson’s husband, Dennis Presser, died suddenly from a heart attack at age 54 four years ago, Stewart helped Larson and her two teenage children navigate the chaos.
Stewart joined Larson when she met with a funeral director to plan the funeral, which took place at the funeral home.
She organized an intimate gathering for family and close friends at the crematorium, with candles, incense and music. As Presser’s body lay inside an open cardboard cremation box, people read poems, told stories and colored the box. Then they placed him in the chamber, and Larson hit the ignition switch.
“I would never have had the energy to create that beautiful ritual,” said Larson, of Madison. “Sharon helped me in so many ways that I never would have thought I needed to be helped.”
Warren’s husband, Spencer, died at 64 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Stewart helped the couple carry out their wishes. His body remained at home for three days, instead of being whisked off to a funeral home. “I had time to be with him; it was very healing,” Warren said.
As family and friends came for the home funeral, volunteers changed ice packs beside his body as he lay on their bed for viewing. Warren drove him to Circle Cemetery, where gatherers sang and played guitar before shoveling dirt over his shrouded body.
“It was the most natural thing I’ve ever experienced,” Warren said.