A group of people gathered at Congressional Cemetery in D.C. on Saturday morning for an unusual reason: to practice dying.
It’s part of a nationwide death-positive movement — the idea that it’s healthy, rather than taboo, to talk about death and dying. In Mexico, for example, the Day of the Dead is an important tradition of remembering loved ones and “commemorating death as another element of life.”
Threshold Choir volunteers performed “song baths” to emulate the experience of people who are visited by the singing group at the end of their lives. The choir started off with a tune by its founder, Kate Munger, called “You Are Not Alone.”
“The room was spellbound and very moved,” Lyster-Mensh said. “We were all very present.”
For participants like Ariel Casey, it offered solace. She has lost six people in the past two years.
“Three to heart conditions, one to cancer, one to murder and one to simple old age,” said Casey, 42, who lives in Wheaton, Md.
When she saw a notice for “Death Doula Days,” Casey said, “I felt a call.”
The session was comforting, she said, adding that she plans to attend more Death Doula Days in the future.
In her new volunteer position at Congressional Cemetery, Lyster-Mensh is trying to make the subject of mortality more approachable.
“It feels as if our culture is very afraid of death, and that’s not good for life,” she said.
Lyster-Mensh will hold Saturday sessions for activities such as obituary writing and a card game called the Death Deck. There will be speakers, including Rosie Grant, who went viral for making recipes she finds on gravestone epitaphs, and plenty of cake for participants to eat.
“The idea is to come together and have courageous conversations about death, and then also enjoy life,” she said.
Lyster-Mensh became a death doula — which is also referred to as an end-of-life doula — about a year ago. Unlike labor doulas, who focus on childbirth, death doulas aim to ease the daunting dying process for people in their final days, offering emotional, physical and spiritual support. Death doulas do not address medical concerns, and they differ from hospice chaplains, she said, as they are not religious professionals.
“I hold people’s hands,” said Lyster-Mensh, who is also a writer. “That’s mostly what I’m needed for.”
Her decision to become a death doula came after her father and a close friend died in 2014, and in both cases, “they didn’t leave me messages. They didn’t sum things up,” she said.
“That prompted me to think about what people could do to have a good death, and leave things behind the way they would want them to be organized,” Lyster-Mensh said, adding that she believes some people fear death so much, it interferes with their appreciation of life.
Death doulas help people live out their dying days as they choose — whether that’s reflecting on regrets, calling loved ones to say goodbye or simply sitting still.
“I don’t think our job is to change their emotions, it’s to walk alongside them in their emotions, and let them be authentically them,” Lyster-Mensh said.
For dying people who don’t have someone to hear their thoughts at the end of their lives, it can be cathartic and calming to share them, even with a caring stranger.
To become a death doula, Lyster-Mensh took a month-long course, which covered vigil planning, rituals and ceremonies, active listening, signs and symptoms of dying and other death-related topics.
During her training, for instance, Lyster-Mensh learned that although the human instinct is to encourage others to eat and drink, if a dying person refrains from consuming anything, it’s actually “better for the body in a lot of ways,” she said, adding that animals behave similarly when they’re dying. “It’s a natural part of things.”
Similarly, if a dying individual no longer enjoys their favorite music, that’s a normal progression, too. “Music can sound different to people at the end of life,” Lyster-Mensh explained.
Valoria Walker, an end-of-life doula and an educator at the International End-Of-Life Doula Association, was Lyster-Mensh’s instructor — and is now her mentor. Walker taught her students that talking openly about death lessens the discomfort and unease around it, and that clears the way for people to think about their hopes for when it is their time.
“We can’t make informed decisions about anything unless we talk about it,” said Walker, who started a company called Doula by Destiny in 2016.
Last May, Lyster-Mensh began volunteering as a death doula in the hospice unit at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Since then, she has sat at the bedsides of about 100 dying people. While many reminisce about the past, others focus on the present moment.
Some people don’t want to talk at all, she said, and in those cases, she just keeps them company — which might seem insignificant, but her presence serves an important purpose, she said.
“I’ve had some very profound experiences with people and their families in those rooms,” said Lyster-Mensh, who volunteers at the hospice unit one day a week.
As Congressional Cemetery’s new resident death doula, she hopes to share her learnings with others.
At the next Death Doula Day, scheduled for Jan. 14, Lyster-Mensh will invite people to write their own obituaries. It’s supposed to encourage participants to get to know themselves better, and decide if, perhaps, there is something they want to change about their lives while they still can, she said.
“People don’t usually do that; they don’t usually sit down and tell the story of who they are,” she said.
Lyster-Mensh first joined the cemetery community in May 2021, after she and her husband moved to a new home about 10 blocks away. She began volunteering as a gardener, and now tends to a plot for a family that died in the early 1900s.
“I fell deeply in love with this place,” she said, adding that she also joined the cemetery book club, among other activities. “I started volunteering for everything they have.”
She noticed there was not a space dedicated to openly discuss death at the cemetery, so she volunteered to fill the void.
Jackie Spainhour, the cemetery’s president, said she was elated.
“We’ve never really gone past the surface level of death conversations,” Spainhour said. “We are still an active burial ground, and there is a need in this area for people to have their questions answered.”
Death Doula Days are in addition to the cemetery’s regularly scheduled “Death Cafes” — which Lyster-Mensh is also leading as informal discussions, rather than planned activities.
Spainhour said she is most looking forward to seeing more people “relax their shoulders, and ease into conversations about death without the fear that is really prevalent today.”
Lyster-Mensh said she is hopeful that her Death Doula Days will encourage people to live richer, more purposeful lives.
“I know it sounds like it’s about death,” Lyster-Mensh said. “But it’s really about life.”