The Art of Death Midwifery

Preparing a body for a home funeral. Photo courtesy Olivia Bareham

Olivia Bareham wants to change people’s perception about death. “I want to break the taboo where we are excited about birth but dread death,” she said. “What if they were both explosive, incredible events?”

Part of a death midwife’s job is to sit with the dying at the end of their life, “to be able to bear witness to their dying process,” said Bareham. “The midwife is also looking beyond the last breath. We hold the space, not just for dying but for the funeral, burial or cremation rituals and even beyond that to help the family and friends grieve.”   

Sacred Crossings death midwife Olivia Bareham. Photo by Claire Fordham

All passings are different and not everyone gets a terminal diagnosis where they have time to plan their final moments. Having helped more than 200 people in and around Topanga as they die, or arranged their home funeral, Bareham has an idea how she’d like her own death to be.

“Some people want to be left alone at the moment of death. I wouldn’t mind having people in the room with me, but I wouldn’t want them touching me and close to the bed. Having a dear friend who totally gets me sitting vigil and holding the space is an anchoring that makes the dying feel safe.”

Just as there’s a natural childbirth movement, Bareham prefers the idea of a natural death. She isn’t saying don’t ever take morphine to help ease any pain, but suggests not taking so much that you aren’t aware of what’s going on. She may not want someone holding her hand or stroking her head at the end, “or telling me it’s okay to go,” she said. She is happy to do that for others, if that’s what they want.

For Bareham, a good death would be where she is aware of what is happening, where she is prepared and feels a sense of completion and fulfillment of the life lived. “So, my dying is just another breath. I am ready and excited for what’s next.”

Bareham advises against waiting until you know you’re dying to forgive people who have hurt you or ask forgiveness of those you might have hurt. “It happens so quickly and then you’re lost and scrambling. Try to stay in a state of consciousness that if death came, if a massive earthquake hit right now, you’d have a level of excitement,” she said.

It’s hard to accept a terminal diagnosis. “Some people can’t believe they are dying,” said Bareham. “It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that we’re even here. Once you play with the idea of the unbelievable-ness of everything, it’s not so unbelievable that you’re dying.”

Bareham believes a funeral or Celebration of Life service and properly grieving is an important part of the process. “It’s declaring that the lost loved one counted and mattered and meant something to those left behind. If you miss that, it’s sad, but perhaps it’s even more sad for the family and friends who have lost an opportunity to lean into their own mortality.”

Mary Guillermin’s husband was 27 years her senior so the couple knew he would probably die first. John Guillerman died a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

He was an acclaimed film director, helming 40 movies including such classics as Towering Inferno, Death on the Nile and the second King Kong, starring Jessica Lange.

The British born Topanga residents since 2007, spent 17 years together, were married for 16 and lived full, happy and active lives. Guillermin always said he didn’t want to die in a hospital. He died suddenly from heart failure in the ambulance en route to the hospital so he almost achieved his wish. He had been playing pool two weeks before he died.

As she sat with her husband’s body in the hospital, Mary remembered hearing about Olivia Bareham and her work. “I rang her up and found out how to get his body released and brought back to the house [where] he was with me from Monday afternoon until the funeral on the Friday. It was just wonderful. Olivia came in with an assistant and they created a beautiful environment,” said Mary.

John wasn’t in a coffin but on his own bed on dry ice. “I am so grateful home funerals exist and I had a long time to say good-bye. It was pretty hard anyway, but it meant so much to me to have that time with him. I didn’t mind him being cold. I touched him and held his hand and talked to him when visitors left.”

The couple hadn’t planned the funeral. “He didn’t believe in God but I do.

He used to say to me there’s nothing after death. I said, ‘Just wait and see, you might be surprised.’ I created the ceremony without any prayers and we toasted him in his favorite scotch. It was a very meaningful experience in large part because of Olivia’s contribution.”

Bareham has this advice for the living and dying, “Build a relationship with death. Befriend death. Be open to every little nuance of what it means to be alive—which includes pain, sorrow and loss—so you’re not thrown off by a catastrophe. Write your healthcare directive and death care directive because you never know when the end will come. And make peace with anyone with whom you have had conflict.”

People from all walks of life complete Bareham’s Death Midwifery course. “More young people in their twenties are doing it because they feel something is missing in our culture regarding death. Some have been volunteering at a hospice, or are social workers. Others are intrigued with the idea that after the last breath, you can keep the body at home for three days and arrange a home funeral. Or they’ve had a horrible experience of death and are looking for healing.”

Bareham, who is fighting fit and looking forward to a long life, doesn’t find her career depressing. “Death is just another chapter in life’s journey,” she said.

For more information about death midwifery courses and home funerals:


Claire Fordham

Fordham worked for the BBC, ITN and Sky News in the UK and wrote a weekly anecdotal column for Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. She currently writes regularly for Huffington Post, The Malibu Times and the Messenger Mountain News. See "A Chat with Claire Fordham" on this website under Podcasts.

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