Taylor Bell and Lacy Buynak want to talk to people about death. It’s not just a fascination — it’s their entire profession.
Bell and Buynak are end-of-life planners and companions. They own The Art Of Dying in Fort Worth, a business that provides services such as death planning, holistic services like aromatherapy and sitting vigils for people who are dying. They started the business in January.
The practice of planning for and supporting people through death has many names. But a common one is “death doula.” Similar to the nonmedical role of supporting people through the process of birth, they help people through death.
Bell and Buynak are practicing a growing profession, with spiked awareness from the high death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bell, a former yoga instructor, said the career is about support and making the conversation and experience around death, frightening for most, more comfortable.
If you go: The Art of Dying’s “Death Cafe” event
What: A social gathering discussion about death over tea
When: 6-7:15 p.m. July 29 at Leaves Book & Tea Shop 120 St Louis Ave. in Fort Worth
More information can be found here.
“I just see there’s just this opportunity to lean into something uncomfortable and make it look less frightening if you can do it together,” Bell said. “With your loved ones, with your care team, with your friends. It can at least support a very unknown process.”
The growing profession of death doulas
Ashley Johnson, president of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance, said the organization has grown to more than 1,500 members across the country since the organization formed in 2018. There has been a spike of interest around end of life doulas around the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said. COVID-19 has resulted in 1,127,152 deaths in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. But the profession has been practiced across cultures since ancient times, she said.
“It is something that has been around or been a practice since the beginning of time,” Johnson said. “As people (have) been born, they have been dying.”
There is not a universally recognized regulatory or accrediting body that provides monitoring for end of life doulas, according to the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance. There are various certifications, though it is not required
The responsibilities of a death doula vary, Johnson said. But ultimately, the role means meeting families or individuals where they are in their time of need – holistically, spiritually and emotionally with dying or grief, Johnson said.
“It could be something with legacy planning or helping them with advanced care planning, or even just introducing the talk of death, dying and grief, because sometimes people are a little wary of just having the conversation,” she said.
For Bell and Buynak, part of their job is planning and pre-planning. They go over details such as legal and personal information in one binder.
Paige Watson, Buynak’s sister in law, was one of their first customers. Watson, 36, said she and her husband made it a New Year’s Resolution to make a will. Watson isn’t sick. The couple went through the plan for their 4-year-old son.
“Just making sure that we’re laying a foundation, and we’re putting things in place almost as an act of love for him so that if anything were to happen, it wouldn’t be a mess,” Watson said. “People would know what was to happen and where things were to go and all that stuff. So it had been kind of hanging over our heads in that way.”
By the end of the planning session, Watson said she was surprised by how enjoyable the conversation was.
“There is like the sterile component of assets and … what’s going to happen with your money and who’s going to get your son,” Watson said. “But then there was also a piece that was about the legacy that you want to leave and really thinking about that for your loved ones. And then also the piece of, what do you want your exit from this planet to look like?”
“Her spirit is all over this”
There aren’t any end-of-life doula collectives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Buynak said, so she makes sure others in her profession are connected.
“More progressive cities have collectives where they’re pooling resources and marketing stuff for doulas that have their own independent practices,” Buynak said. “There’s nothing like that here right now.”
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in May, Buynak and Bell meet with Courtney Harris inside Leaves Tea Books & Tea Shop at 120 St Louis Ave. in Fort Worth for a “Art of Pre-Planning” session for those who are not dying (yet) but wish to get their affairs in order early.
Harris is also learning to be a death doula as she takes notes about the profession from Buynak and Bell. The binder has a checklist of documents to consider in the planning process, such as the Durable Power of Attorney, or advanced directives.
The binder is inspired by Bell’s mother, who died in 2013 from cancer. Bell’s mother put together a binder of all the documents Bell needed. It was a balm to Bell’s grief, she recalls.
“Because of her planning, I could just be sad,” Bell said. “I didn’t have to do all these logistics and get things together and hunt things down. I could just be with her and enjoy my time that I had left with her. It was just such a gift.”
Bell and Buynak hope to continue the conversation about death. They are hosting a “death cafe” at Leaves on June 29 to have casual conversations about death.
Bell thinks of her mother when doing the work.
“I feel like this is her legacy for sure,” Bell said. “Her spirit is all over this.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.