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Who Cares for the Dying?

" It is rare that care of the dead and the care of the dying are discussed among the myriad caregiver responsibilities women have always held in their homes and communities. Yet this work was done almost exclusively by women until the Civil War. While care for the dying fell to the family’s women, there were also women whose professions were caring for the dead and dying. Some midwives offered these services, but there were also women who specialized in care for the dead and dying. The work of these professional women, frequently widows in need of an income, was divided into two distinct roles: “Layers-out” (also called “Shrouding women”), and “Watchers.”

Layers-out washed, groomed, fixed, dressed, and shrouded corpses, tasks that today are generally completed by funeral directors. By the late 18th century, layers-out were highly trained, skilled, experienced practitioners, many of whom learned from their mothers or grandmothers. The knowledge they passed down included recognition of the intricate differences various diseases and climates had on decomposition, disguising disfigurement, removal of internal organs, sewing up of corpses, and preserving bodies on ice to allow time for widely dispersed family members to arrive. These women were often skilled seamstresses as well, which was advantageous when dressing the deceased.

The professionals who cared for the dying were known as “watchers.” The work these women did will sound familiar to end of life doulas: tending to the physical, spiritual, and social needs of the dying. Watchers adjusted bedclothes, offered food, water, and medicine, and managed bodily evacuations. Spiritual tasks included praying and arranging visits by clergy and other religious persons. Watchers welcomed visitors and loved ones to the side of the dying.

The Civil War brought a sea change in technology and how death was understood by society. Embalming allowed soldiers’ corpses to be returned to their families for burial, while the necessity of handling large numbers of dead soldiers created an industry from what had been local practices. As undertakers became commonplace, the traditional women’s roles declined. By the 20th century, the watchers and layers-out had vanished. Nonetheless, doulas owe a great deal to these women, our foremothers in the effort to provide the dying with comfort, dignity, and peace"- Lisa Fieldstein

This important work has been reignited buy the efforts of INELDA and other end-of-life: death doula associations and trainers. The focus is not on any one religious outcome- but structured to meet each and every dying person on the terms THEY need. There is also comfort, guidance and so on for the family. The idea is make the dying space as sacred, special and or comforting as possible. Not remove the cold feeling of a hospital room. To perhaps encourage victors, sharing, etc- to whatever extent the dying person desires. This can be a profound experience for all and the goal is a "good Death" in whatever manner that is for the dying person and the family. If you need these service reach out to. 712 326 6002


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