Why is it So Hard to Make a Living as an EOL Doula?
by Brian Hayden
June 16, 2021

Yesterday I heard two stories that illustrate why it’s hard to earn a living wage as a full-time end of life doula.

“I’m Creating So Much Value for Others”

Recently I helped my client evaluate assisted living facilities. They had put down a deposit at a really nice place that cost $8k / month. I visited the facility and it was nice, but I knew about a couple other options that might be better and less expensive. We visited each of them, did some background research, had several conversations, and the client ended up liking a different place – one that costs $5k / month – even better. 

I spent most of a week doing this emotional and logistically complicated work. My client is saving $3k / month. The assisted living facility is grossing $5k / month. I was paid $250.

“My Rate is 1/10th of the Lawer”

Recently I helped a client write a living will. They had been planning to engage with an estate attorney to complete this document. The attorney charges $350/hour. I informed my client that they could write these documents themselves and that I could support them in doing it. We sat down and did this together. It took a couple of hours. My client got a better result because we have an existing relationship and I really understand what they value. My client avoided a trip to the lawyer and saved $700. I made $70.

Is Low Pay a Core Value of this Work?

I asked Lee Webster and Merilynne Rush to help me understand this passage from the National Home Funeral Alliance’s page on Certification & Licensure, that explains why home funeral guides aren’t licensed:

Requiring licensure or certification would force guides into becoming industry professionals, which is in direct opposition to what home funeral guides stand for, specifically keeping the care of the deceased in the hands of the family and not in the realm of industry professionals.

I didn’t understand why home funeral guides aren’t considered to be ‘professionals’…do home funerals always need to be free and done by passionate volunteers?

I read and agree with Lee’s perspective that “caring for our dead is an act of social justice”. However, my opinion is that it’s not wrong to offer something between a grassroots option and a conventional funeral experience. I feel there’s space in the middle for a professional, but more intimate and lower cost service. But I certainly haven’t thought about it as deeply as Lee, Merylynne or many others.

I’m asking because this idea is central to what I think we’re creating together. I think it lies at the heart of a potential metamorphosis for the industry.

Distinction Between End-of-Life and Deathcare Work is Important

Lee really helped me understand an important distinction between pre-death and post-death doula work. She explained, “Pre-death doulas can and will be certified eventually. Living beings – very different. Still operating in the living space. Home funeral guides cannot and will never be certified or licensed separately from the existing structure that is highly regulated by both the federal government and states.”

This helped me understand and appreciate the complicated relationship EOL doulas have with the funeral industry and work being done by many to professionalize end of life doula work.

Structures & Mental Models That Guarantee Low Pay

Until very recenty I refused to pay $3.99 to rent a movie on Amazon Prime. I was happy to spend $60 to take my family to a movie theater, but $3.99 felt exorbitant for a home viewing experience. TV is free! But like so many others, I came around. I now pay for multiple streaming services and have gotten comfortable paying for a home movie rental. But my mental model took a long time to change.

There’s something similar at play in doula work. Families expect large bills from doctors, insurance companies, assisted living providers and lawyers, but not from a doula. 

I’m not advocating for increasing costs to families. But I am interested in exploring ways to make it possible for doulas to earn a living wage. Getting there isn’t about working harder or more hours. It’s not just about charging more. Placing an appropriate value on the crucial work performed by doulas can only be done through structural changes to existing systems that enable EOL doulas to keep a little more of the value they create.

I don’t have answers but I’m going to keep asking questions and looking for solutions. If you’re interested in that conversation please reach out to me at [email protected] or 800-685-7331.

This is our latest free course offering – previous events have included “Opportunities in Green Burial” and “How to Host a Virtual Funeral“. All of our events are intended as training for professionals to use on the job. Certificates are available when you complete a learning check. There is always an opportunity to meet and ask questions of the instructor.