Three University of BC faculty members have plans to offer a graduate course to medical and other graduate students on matters of death and dying.
They also plan to offer public lectures on topics such as Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), green/sustainable burials, and the use of psychedelic drugs for “transcendent” experiences at the end of life.
“We’re excited to engage with graduate students and the public in discussions that allow people to fully live their lives well and also to dispel the fears around the topics of death and dying,” says Dr. Carol Ann Courneya, an associate professor in the faculty of medicine and a certified end of life doula.
Courneya grew up in Kingston, Ont. often exposed to funeral rituals because her parents were best friends with the family who owned a funeral home. “I became familiar and comfortable with death, and the ceremonies surrounding it.” She recalls sneaking out of the house when she was just five years old to ask the funeral home operators if she could have some of their flowers so she could surprise her parents with a bouquet for their anniversary.
“That’s what I would like to bring to this course. Some of that guileless, open attitude towards death.”
Courneya, who also volunteers at the Sunshine Coast Hospice, says no one has died by talking about death yet there’s great discomfort with such discussions. “We aim to change that,” she said, referring to her academic collaborators – Dr. Pippa Hawley, a palliative care specialist at the BC Cancer Agency and Dr. Barb Pesut, professor and research chair in palliative care at the UBC Okanagan campus.
Courneya describes their aspirations here:
BY DR. CAROL ANN COURNEYA
The global pandemic has unleashed a tidal wave of discussions about death and dying.
Death Cafes—informal, unscripted gatherings to talk about death and dying—are now offered in over 50 countries, and have contributed to a healthier awareness of death. There are opportunities to discuss advance care planning, advanced directives, and wills. Colleges are offering End-of-Life Doula training to individuals interested in being empathetic guides to people nearing the end of life.
National coalitions continue to lobby for much-needed, improved palliative care, while others lobby for the use of psychedelic drugs to enhance transcendent experiences at end of life. And in March 2021, the Canadian government passed a bill to expand access to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) to those whose death is not reasonably foreseeable, opening the door for assisted death to those living with chronic disabling conditions.
Amidst these radical changes in end-of-life options, there is an urgent need to support healthcare professionals and social scientists in engaging thoughtfully with this critical topic. In addition, the public is seeking out reliable, evidence-based conversations about death and dying in order to make sense of this rapidly changing and complex landscape. One researcher, George Leeson, refers to the emerging “demography of death” where more people are dying at older ages, and, are motivated to live well at end of life.
However, death is no longer a topic just for the old. Millennials are rethinking funerals, focusing particularly on green or natural options with less impact on the environment. Thirty-seven-year-old Caitlin Doherty hosts a YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician” that attracts nearly two million subscribers.
And at 30, Katrina Spade founded a US-based company that naturally recycles human remains into compostable soil. Her TED Talk “When I die, recompose me” has close to one and a half million views.
You can learn more about green (eco-conscious) burials here.
Alongside this graduate course, we plan to offer public lectures, featuring experts from across North America on topics including:
- Indigenous end-of-life practices
- Psilocybin-assisted end-of-life psychotherapy
- Imagining a better illness journey for patients and caregivers
- Gender and sexuality issues relevant to end of life
- Green/sustainable funeral practices
All of us will die and thus, be future consumers of end-of-life experiences. In an era rife with misinformation, it is crucial to access information conveyed by health and social science experts in their fields. The information in our public lectures will be conveyed in terms that are engaging and easily accessible to an educated lay audience.
Details about the course and public lectures will be shared as they are finalized.