While death might be a subject many prefer not to dwell on, Alua Arthur has made it the focal point of her life’s work as a death doula. Her organization Going with Grace provides end-of-life care to help individuals answer the question: What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may die gracefully? Here, she reflects on her journey to doula-dom, how to live an authentic life, and what it means to have a beautiful death.
In 2012, I met a woman on a bus in Cuba who had uterine cancer. We talked about her illness, and it seemed to me that she was on this trip because it was the one place in the world she wanted to see before she died. She was determined. It seemed to me that she was on this trip in a resistance to death more than an embrace of life, which is a very subtle difference.
We talked about what was not done in her life. There was a lot she felt like she hadn’t done yet. We talked about the grave, we talked about her funeral, we talked about having and not having children, her legacy. We talked about it all on this 14-hour bus ride. She had a psychologist that was in her oncology program, but that psychologist was talking to her about living with disease, not about dying. I thought that was a huge disservice. I thought, There should be people who do this. Why aren’t there people who do this?
Six months later, my brother-in-law got sick. Four months after that, it became pretty clear that the doctors weren’t going to be able to cure him. So, I went to New York and spent the last two months of his life with him and my sister, my niece, and his parents. Essentially, I was a doula with him, without knowing that was something that people did. There were so many learnings in that time. One of them was: Given that 102 billion people have lived and died, why does it feel like we’re so alone in this? It feels catastrophic to the individual and to the family, and yet it happens to everything. It’s the most natural thing that happens. So, why does it feel so lonely?
I helped my sister wrap up his affairs after he died. There wasn’t proper support. I saw firsthand what the real impact is on individuals out there. I thought, We need to take care of each other—humans need to take care of each other. So, I started Going with Grace, and that’s what we do. We support people in preparing themselves for dying, then we walk alongside people and their families as they do it. Then afterwards, we offer the families support as well.
Dying is such an individual process, and yet, there are similar themes that emerge at the end. Many people are really concerned with healing their relationships. People also want to think about getting their affairs in order—the paperwork, and making sure that somebody knows where their passwords are, how to open the safe, things like that. People often want to consider ideas about consciousness and the afterlife or if there is one. People also really think about the unfinished business of living: going to Machu Picchu, writing that book, having that baby, or the things that they feel that they might die having left undone.
If I could give any advice, I would say that if you are really concerned with living well in integrity, then spend every morning thinking about the fact that you’re going to die—and use that as a foundation from which you make decisions and determine your actions. When I frame everything in the context that I’m going to die, who I am and what my core values are come to the forefront. Those core values then inform how I am living my life and if I am living my life in a way that feels authentic and good for me. Death can make you so much clearer about life.
It’s not that we’ve gotten death wrong. I think our current system just doesn’t serve everybody. Some people want to die in a hospital, hooked up to machines with everything possible having been done, and that needs to be honored as much as the person that wants to stop treatment after a certain time and die at home peacefully. I think a beautiful death is just exactly what the person wants.
As for me, I want my funeral to take place somewhere high up. I love the mountains, but I also want the desert. There will be picnic tables and branches that have been fixed in the ground. From those branches, my jewelry will hang all around in a big circle. There will be easels with photographs from my travels, because I’ve traveled a lot. I want people to come in and take items off of the branches and wear them. I don’t want people wearing black—unless that’s their thing—but mostly, I want there to be a lot of color. I want great music, and I want storytelling. I want it to feel very casual, no microphones or anything like that. A little PA system for the music, but no microphones. I want it to be intimate. There will be food—Ghanaian food, certainly fried plantains. There will be whiskey and wine—rosé.
That’s all going to happen mid-afternoon. Then, as the service itself is winding down, as the sun starts to set, my body is going to leave. My body is going to be there, hopefully in a hot pink or orange raw silk shroud. (I haven’t found one yet.) When my body leaves at sunset, the base will drop and there will be fireworks. I’m going to leave, they’re going to stay, they’re going to party. My body is going to be driven to the actual burial site. I’m going to be buried in a green burial. No more than three- and-a-half feet underground, just in my raw silk shroud, naked in the ground. Then they will party, and they will laugh, and they will probably cry too. And hopefully they dance. I hope they dance.