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Last Look is an on-going profile series of women working in the death industry.
“Death is inevitable. My life span is ever decreasing. Death comes whether or not I am prepared.” These are three of the nine contemplations on death written by Buddhist teacher Atisha — and Alua Arthur reads them to clients during death meditations. As a death doula and owner of Going With Grace, an end of life and death care company, Arthur (who graduated from law school before shifting to work in the death industry) facilitates these sessions to help people who are uncomfortable with the idea of death or dying.
“Death meditation is an opportunity for people that are struggling with some fears around death and dying to confront those fears head-on," Arthur says. "It's not for the faint of heart. It's an opportunity to really think about the body's eventual decline, and to go there to see what the discomfort is, so that we can then talk about that and process that. It’s intended to soften the fear around death.”
And, true to her claim, Arthur’s work is meant to soften fears around death. “Doula” is a word derived from a Greek term meaning, “women who serve.” As a death doula, she works with clients to plan for the final stage of their lives, holds space to support them emotionally through their deaths, and ensures their wishes are met.
Arthur developed a nine-part “Advanced Care Directive” that allows clients to list how they’d like to be cared for in the event of terminal illness. It includes everything from personal grooming preferences to thoughts on life support. By filling out Arthur’s document, a client can clearly state how they’d like their social media to be handled in the event of their death and whether they’d prefer to be embalmed, buried in a bio-urn (a seed pod for ashes that nourishes the earth and grows into a plant), or anything in between. She’s helped prepare for end of life with healthy millennials, large family groups, and even her own father.
Of course, when it comes to her own funeral, Arthur, who thinks about death “all day, every day” knows exactly what she wants. If possible, she'd prefer to die outside, at sunset. And she wants to be buried in a pink or orange raw silk shroud. Her funeral will be a party filled with music (Michael Jackson is a must on the playlist). She’d like her jewelry — an extensive collection of bangles and big earrings — hung on trees and for attendees to take the pieces they like. This tendency toward bright colors, generosity and liveliness mirrors Arthur’s sensibility in life. Her smile is contagious. Arthur's yellow and magenta and green African-print frocks are a far cry from the drab, stereotypical wares one might associate with the death industry. In fact, there’s nothing grim about her or the work she does.
Yes, Arthur's death consultations can be heartfelt and tearful to be sure, but, as she puts it, “death can definitely be funny.” And so, she approaches each conversation with a seemingly effortless but effective sense of levity. Arthur is part of a new trend in the death industry that favors pre-planning, personalization, and, ultimately, the normalization of death as a topic of conversation. In Arthur's vision of the world, everyone over the age of 18 has an end of life plan and is willing to talk openly about death, she says.
“I think people don't talk about death, because we're not really comfortable with it," she says. "Yet, whenever I talk about my work, people always talk to me about death... I think my work gives people permission to talk about this thing that we all want to talk about anyway, yet we're just not doing.”
So, while many of us may not all be ready to recite the nine contemplations just yet, we can take comfort in the words Arthur uses to signs off on all of her Advanced Care Directives: “Yes, one day you and I will die, but before that day, let us live.” When she says those words out loud, she can’t help but smile.
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