Some might call Jane Anderson’s path to death work, as she calls it, a circuitous one — starting with a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies and women’s rights — but Anderson’s long understood her purpose in life.
“I’ve said it many times,” she says over a cup of tea, “My whole life is just to help alleviate the suffering of others in whatever way.”
For the past three years Anderson has volunteered with hospice through TRU Community Care, providing support to patients and families facing death and loss. In addition to the traditional volunteer work with hospice — relief to caretakers, meals or cups of tea for patients and families, transportation if needed, light household chores, general companionship — Anderson brought in her knowledge as a clinical herbalist to initiate an aromatherapy program at TRU’s hospice inpatient unit at Longmont United Hospital about a year ago.
Since long before the Bard’s Ophelia gave her brother Laertes rosemary “for remembrance” in the wake of their father’s death, humans have been using the fragrance of plants and herbs to heal and soothe and memorialize. Ancient Egyptians used myrrh and frankincense during embalming; Greek physician Hippocrates used chamomile to reduce fever and recommended daily massage with aromatic herbs; in India, sandalwood has long burned at funerals to free the soul of the dead.
Today aromatherapy is used in conjunction with standard medical treatment, often to combat anxiety or nausea, alleviate pain or improve mood and quality of sleep.
Smells are widely known to trigger powerful emotions and memories in humans, which science believes has a lot to do with human anatomy. Incoming smells first hit the olfactory bulb, which has direct connections to the amygdala and the hippocampus — both critical players in the development of emotion and memory. Visual, tactile and auditory information doesn’t pass through these brain areas, which may explain why smells play so powerfully on our emotions and memories.
“It’s as simple as lavender essential oil making people feel relaxed,” Anderson says. “There’s a lot of agitation often during death, and essential oils can bring calm to the death process. Essential oils like rosemary and the citrus oils can just freshen up a room. Long hours at the bedside are hard on anybody and just bringing in the citruses and the mints can just kind of brighten the mood, kind of lift the spirits a little bit.
“Rosemary most specifically is an herb of remembrance, so it can help pull up memories and support those conversations during the end of someone’s life,” she adds. “Then there’s the sacred essential oils like sandalwood and frankincense and myrrh, which have been used for thousands of years to honor the sacredness of crossing the threshold.”
Anderson trains the staff at the inpatient facility on which essential oils they can use, and creates blends that supply the facility.
Her journey to death work began in 2015, when she and her mother attended the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. Nearly 10,000 people from 73 countries, 30 major religions and more than 500 sub-traditions attended, performed, presented and led workshops.
“There was this universal goal of peace, ecological preservation, human rights and religious freedom,” Anderson says of the conference.
It was there that she heard someone speak about death midwifery for the first time, the practice of assisting in the dying process. It’s a practice as old as human civilization, a historically community-based role where the death midwife not only helps families make plans for their dying loved one, but also helps everyone cope with death’s natural place in life.
“She was lecturing on your final gift — it was all about green burials and what your gift is going to be to this world,” Anderson says. “Just listening to her talking about death midwifery work it was like this door opened and I realized that regardless of what role it plays in my life, this was a path I needed to get on.”
A year later she was certified as a death midwife.
With a family to help support, Anderson maintained her full-time job with HomeCare of the Rockies, providing non-medical care to seniors around Boulder County. But she also built up her own business, Elderwood Apothecary, making handcrafted natural skin care products, and began to co-facilitate a death discussion group in Longmont called Open Heart, Open Mind at The Meditation Place.
“I’m just trying to get people to take a different walk to death,” Anderson says of the group, which talks about different types of burial practices available, what you can expect and ask for after your loved one dies — like extra time with the body — and the ways that you can plan for a death that feels congruent with your values.
“Hospice volunteer work is amazing and there’s such a need for it,” Anderson says. “The nurses and social workers, they only have so much time and it’s really the volunteers that either can support the nurses, can sit by the bedside and volunteer time in the grief counseling office or bring their special service animals to visit. But you don’t have to be a counselor or have a service animal: There’s so many different ways to help and such a need for a broad skill set.”