7. Death Doulas and Coffin Clubs: Exploring Touch and the End of Life

Religion and Touch - Christina Welch

Suzi Garrod [+-]
Next Steps for Living, Dying, Grieving
Suzi Garrod is a death doula and bereavement counsellor, and the founder of Next Steps for Living, Dying, Grieving (www.next-steps.org). She has worked in the death and dying field for over 15 years, integrating her psychotherapeutic, end-of-life and complementary therapy skills to offer deep listening and gentle touch therapies within the community, hospices, care homes and hospitals. Working in close partnership with St. Luke’s Hospice (Plymouth, UK) and Kingsbridge Age Concern, Suzi trains and coordinates local networks of compassionate community volunteers, offering practical and emotional support to friends, relatives and neighbours who wish to spend their last days at home. Three years ago, Suzi decided to return to part-time study, to broaden her understanding of death within religion and culture, and to develop a more scholarly approach to her practical end-of-life work. She is currently completing her Masters’ thesis which explores barriers to integrating death doula approaches within UK healthcare settings.
Bronwyn Russell [+-]
Masters student
Bronwyn Russell has worked as a physiotherapist for nine years, four of which she spent travelling the globe. She has worked with as a physiotherapist in Australia, England, Scotland, India and Nepal (and a few other places in between). Her jobs have included working with children with disabilities, with people recovering from amputations, burns, and reconstructive surgery, chronic pain management, and musculoskeletal physiotherapy. She is now back in her home country of New Zealand. A few years ago, Bronwyn decided to return to study. A friend suggested social anthropology, and Bronwyn has never looked back. She is currently finishing a thesis towards her Masters, which explores Coffin Clubs in New Zealand.


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.

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Garrod, Suzi; Russell, Bronwyn. 7. Death Doulas and Coffin Clubs: Exploring Touch and the End of Life. Religion and Touch. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Sep 2021. ISBN 9781800500334. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=42175. Date accessed: 16 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.42175. Sep 2021

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