Girdwood doula helps people plan, prepare for and celebrate death

Two women sitting on a sofa.
Angelina Guerrero (left) meets with death doula Julie Raymond-Yakoubian in her Anchorage home. (Rachel Cassandra/AKPM)

Angelina Guerrero sat on a couch in her living room in Anchorage and told Julie Raymond-Yakoubian one of the memories she had of death in her family. 

“I remember my great grandmother, when she died- The five of us cousins were all sitting in the yard watching our moms in conflict around my great grandmother’s things and wishes,” Guerrero said. “And that right there was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want that. I don’t want that.’”

Guerrero isn’t expecting to die anytime soon, like some who seek out guidance on dying. But because of experiences like with her great-grandmother’s death, she wants to make sure her plans around death are clear for her family. So, she reached out to Raymond-Yakoubian, a death doula, sometimes called an end-of-life doula. 

“Have you ever thought about who you would like to make decisions for you?” Raymond-Yakoubian asked her, “If you were incapacitated?”

These are questions Guerrero will have to answer as she starts to make formal plans for her end-of-life care. 

“I just let my son know last night,” Guerrero said. “We should probably have this conversation.” 

As a death doula, Raymond-Yakoubian talks people through making all the arrangements and plans around end-of-life care and, ultimately, their death. She guides people through spiritual concerns or helping mend family relationships when someone is terminally ill, and she helps with what she calls the “unsexy stuff,” like advanced care directive forms and other paperwork. 

“Have you thought at all about what you would like to happen to your body?,” Raymond-Yakoubian asked. 

“I know, I don’t want to be in the casket,” Guerrero said. “I don’t know. I don’t want my kids having to pay for one. I don’t want them to go into debt, so whatever makes it the least burdensome on them.”

Raymond-Yakoubian is also an anthropologist. She was drawn to her work surrounding death because she feels people in the United States often don’t ceremonialize death as much as they could and many people have trouble talking about it.

“I think a lot of that stems from fear, and not understanding what may happen to their body and to themselves and to their families and loved ones,” Raymond-Yakoubian said. 

But she said once people get their paperwork in order, they often feel relieved. And she said engaging in rituals around death can be healing. 

“Within the process of dying, and after dying, there are many different stages and events that you can mark through ritual and ceremony,” Raymond-Yakoubian said. “And we know, from anthropology and social science, that ritual and ceremony help us as humans to process emotions, and to process large life events that we’re going through.”

Raymond-Yakoubian also helps people have home funerals. That’s when a family prepares and keeps a dead loved one at home for ceremony and visiting. She said there are a few things people need to think about when having a home funeral, like keeping the body cool. But she said it’s simple and safe. 

“You don’t need special permission to do that,” Raymond-Yakoubian said. “It’s helpful often to inform any medical providers that might be involved like a hospice or other kind of care-taking team, that that’s something you are planning on doing. But it’s legal, it’s safe, and it can be immensely healing for families and loved ones to hold a home funeral.”

Angelina Guerrero didn’t know much about home funerals before meeting Raymond-Yakoubian, but as she figures out what she wants for herself when she passes, she’s considering it. 

“I want my experience to be just a calm, beautiful, natural environment where everybody’s comfortable,” Guerrero said. “It feels more comfortable here.”

As their session wrapped up, Guerrero held a few packets of papers to look through and fill out and some questions to ask herself about how she wants to be remembered when she leaves this life. 

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Rachel here.

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