This article is written by TalkDeath Editor, Mandy, after she participated in the three-day A Deeper Dive into Death retreat and death doula workshop in Sierraville, California. 

A Deeper Dive Into Death Retreat

A Deeper Dive Into Death retreat was a three-day retreat hosted by Jill Schock of Death Doula LA, Emily Cross of Steady Waves End-of-Life, Meghan Carmichael of 805 Funerals, and Stefanie Elkins, Continuum of Care Coach & Consultant. It was designed for “individuals interested in learning the ins and outs of death care on a professional or personal level” and consisted of hands-on workshops, and courses from a range of deathcare professionals. A Deeper Dive Into Death retreat covered the entire end-of-life journey, from diagnosis through disposition. 

The common interest and passion in redefining deathcare brought everyone together seamlessly.

I have never attended a retreat before, and while I do enjoy my share of spa visits and yoga classes, I can say with confidence that I am not the retreat “type”. Being stuck in a remote location with a group of people I have never met before, and opening up about personal experiences, is my introverted nightmare. But invite me to a meet-up with a group of folks solely there to discuss death and learn about deathcare? I’m in. 

The retreat felt like it actually began when I landed at the Reno airport after an 8 hour flight from Canada. The 1 hour drive from Reno to Sierraville, California had nothing but beautiful mountain views, and pastures dotted with livestock and horses (to which I shouted “horsie!!” to only myself, everytime I drove past some). 

A rustic and bucolic scene treated me as I arrived at the tranquil Sierra Hot Springs Resort and Retreat Center. To my relief, walking into the common area for the first time, it did not feel like the first day of school. The group was made up of individuals from different age groups, careers and backgrounds, but the common interest and passion in redefining deathcare brought everyone together seamlessly. Our group was the perfect size – 19 of us including facilitators, with the entire guest house to ourselves.

A Deeper Dive into Death retreat

Photos and Video by TJ Allen and Jessica Hurtado

A Deeper Dive Into Death Retreat – Day 1:

Friday evening began with a group meal and introduction to key philosophical and ideological approaches to death and dying. We discussed Keirkegaard’s existential philosophy and our unique ability to recognize our own mortality; Dr. Sheldon Solomon’s Terror management theory; and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s well-known, though controversial, stages of grief. It was clear from these discussions that Schock and the rest of the coordinators were focused on facilitating a dialogue within the group, as opposed to lecturing at the group. It was only our first activity, but it already felt like we were a group of friends having meaningful conversations about death and our personal experiences with death anxiety.

A Deeper Dive into Death retreat

Photos and Video by TJ Allen and Jessica Hurtado

Emily Cross then facilitated her well known Living Funeral Ceremony where participants are guided through the process of their own physical death, and memorial service. A meditative and extremely emotional experience, participants are made to reflect on their life and come to terms with their mortality. 

The evening ended in the hot springs. I cannot stress enough how perfect this location was. After an exhausting day of travel, a delicious meal, philosophical conversations about dying, and literally experiencing your own funeral, I could not have imagined a more effective way to soak it all in than sitting in a warm sulphuric bath, gawking at a bright starry sky while surrounded by darkness. It was now official: I was converted into a retreat person. 


A Deeper Dive Into Death Retreat – Day 2:

Saturday was the only full day of the retreat, and it was a packed itinerary. We met in the conference room and immediately dove into a flurry of conversations around end-of-life planning. These were not generalized conversations about “the importance of planning ahead.” We reviewed state and federal laws, documents and forms, and Advanced Care Directives in detail. We were also given very practical guidance on how to facilitate end-of-life conversations with loved ones. A great piece of advice was to tune into everyday situations and casual remarks to gain a better understanding of what a loved one would really want in their dying process.

Schock walked us through actual cases she has worked on, laid out how she has managed complex family dynamics, and where she fits in (and steps away) as a Death Doula. Working as a full-time Death Doula, Schock was able to provide clear instructions on how to manage certain situations and grey areas that can arise. Reflecting on the entire weekend, the personal anecdotes and detailed experiences shared by Schock and the other facilitators was one of the most beneficial and valuable aspects of the entire retreat. 

A Deeper Dive into Death retreat

Photos and Video by TJ Allen and Jessica Hurtado

The content of A Deeper Dive Into Death retreat was organized into the following subjects:

  • Philosophical Approaches to Death and Dying
  • Advanced Care Planning and End-of-Life Conversations
  • Tools for Being a Successful Advocate: Navigating the Funeral and Healthcare Industries
  • New Options for Dispositions and Funerals
  • In-Depth Look at Hospice Care, Vigils and How we Die
  • Home Funerals and After-Death Body Care
  • Your Role in Deathcare 

Each topic we dove into was accompanied by packets of research and reading materials. Although the day (and the entire retreat) was very content-heavy with a lot of information packed into short sessions, it was easy to absorb because we were constantly going around the table discussing each subject, and drawing from our personal experiences. 

A Deeper Dive Into Death Retreat – Day 3:

Our final day at the retreat began with a focus on home funerals and caring for bodies. Schock performed a hands-on workshop on how to wash, move, dress and prepare a body yourself, and how to guide a family to do this as a Death Doula. We went over a detailed timeline of a home funeral including the different jobs that would need to be assigned, how the body will begin to physically change and decay over time, and how to build ritual or hold vigil. 

A Deeper Dive Into Death

Photos and Video by TJ Allen and Jessica Hurtado

A Deeper Dive into Death retreat concluded with a panel on finding your role in deathcare. Professionals who already work in the field spoke about their experiences, how they got started and what we could expect. The panelists even opened up about salary expectations for the various deathcare positions. We then had the opportunity to ask in-depth questions, and everyone opened up about their hopes, future plans and projects within the field. It was inspiring to hear from so many people with different personal experiences with death, understanding everyone’s motivation for participating in the retreat, and their future projects and endeavours within the field. 

Looking to the Future

Looking forward to future retreats, I am excited to discover how the content will adapt and grow. While there can never be a better substitute to real life experience, deathcare-related roleplaying is something I believe A Deeper Dive Into Death retreat would benefit from. The leap from learning new information to applying it in practical situations is often great, and this is an area where people can feel underprepared. Roleplaying would allow participants to learn from scenarios they are likely to encounter in the real world, and would add to the already full toolbox Schock and the other facilitators provide.

It has been 7 years since I have started working in deathcare and death education. Even though  I work with deathcare professionals and talk to folks like you about death and dying daily, A Deeper Dive Into Death was an effective, thought-provoking and educational experience that I could not recommend enough. 

The 2020 edition of Deeper Dive Into Death: caring for the dying will take place from June 26th-28th at the Sierra Hot Springs Resort and Retreat Center.  Keep up to date with the event by following Death Doula LA on Facebook and Instagram. Spots are definitely going to sell out quickly! 

Click Here to purchase tickets for A Deeper Dive Into Death retreat 2020!

Mandy Benoualid
Mandy is the co-founder and editor of TalkDeath, and co-host of the #TalkDeath webseries. She is also the founder and President of the online memorial platform, Keeper. Mandy’s work has appeared in national and international publications, she has been a featured presenter at professional funeral and cemetery conferences and was recently featured as an industry innovator by American Funeral Director Magazine. Mandy works part time as a Funeral Director’s Assistant, and plays music in her free time.


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