Death doula brings life lessons to Congressional Cemetery with new class

Every Saturday at Congressional Cemetery, Laura Lyster-Mensh uses death to remind people how to live.

She’s a death doula, and recently started a class called Death Doula Days at Congressional Cemetery to help people tell stories and write their obituaries. It’s an experience that has led some participants to think twice about their legacy.

“The goal is to live better until we die,” said Lyster-Mensh. “There’s fun to it, there’s serious things about it, there’s sadness, but mostly it’s not turning our back on the one thing that we all share. Facing it, I think, is one of the most mature things that we can do.”

As part of the class, participants lay down in the front of the room and are serenaded by the Threshold Singers, an end-of-life choir. She says it’s the practice of dying.

Death doula. (Courtesy Laura Lyster-Mensh)

“There’s a little bit of crying, mostly really good conversation,” she added.

Lyster-Mensh’s interest in death began to grow during the pandemic, when she decided to take a month-long death doula training course through the International End of Life Doula Association.

She says that, while the idea is new to many people, it’s a part of tradition. Her work is no different from doulas who welcome new life and is just as sacred.

For her, it’s also about learning to be selfless and present with others, accepting things as they are and being OK with facing our own mortality.

“If we don’t acknowledge that it’s going to happen, we’re not really good at supporting other people who are dying,” she said.

In addition to her classes, Lyster-Mensh also volunteers to sit with people who are dying at Capital Caring Hospice.

“I don’t like that people die alone,” she said.

Death Doula class. (Courtesy Laura Lyster-Mensh)

She says death is not as scary for those experiencing it as we may think.

“I’m not as afraid of dying as I used to be,” she said. “Being with people who are dying has released me from fear. My empathy has increased. That’s where it’s left me so far.”

Anyone is welcome to join her classes at Congressional Cemetery, happening every Saturday.

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

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