Book: Religion and Touch
Chapter: 7. Death Doulas and Coffin Clubs: Exploring Touch and the End of Life
Touch is a powerful sensory way through which to communicate presence, emotion, comfort and support, particularly at end of life, yet many of us have forgotten this most fundamental form of human communication. In Western societies especially, the decline in cultural tradition and religious ritual at end of life, augmented by social and medical narratives that focus on death avoidance and the institutionalisation of the sick and elderly, have led to a loss of meaningful connection with death. Talking about it has become taboo, being around, let alone touching, the dying, has become frightening, avoidance and denial of death, dying and grief have become the norm. As a result, both the dying and their caregivers often feel isolated and invisible when faced with their own mortality, experiencing fear, impotence and hopelessness rather than understanding, acceptance or support. This paper examines, through the personal accounts of practitioners, two ways in which these issues are beginning to be addressed, particularly in terms of touch and its place at end of life. Firstly, it explores the work of a Death Doula in England who offers spiritual, emotional and practical support to the dying and their families, by providing and teaching therapeutic touch. Secondly, it examines the growing phenomenon of the Coffin Club movement and asserts that touch, through the group crafting of personalised coffins, encourages a deeper exploration and acceptance of death and loss. Both authors draw on their experiences within each approach, emphasising the significance of touch at end of life using ethnographic accounts or clinical case studies, and referencing scholarly, religious and ethical perspectives where relevant.