Alua Arthur On Demystifying Death
“Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about death won’t make you dead.”
We are talking about death on this episode and it is a party! We are going to explore life, love, and family through the lens of death with our incredible guest Alua Arthur. Alua is a Ghanifornian Mash-Up (Ghana + California, obvs) and a death doula, which means that she works with individuals and families to help them through the process of death.
We chat with Alua about everything from what to do with your loved one’s magazine subscription after they are gone to what an advanced care directive is and why we need one. She tells us about the cultural differences surrounding death and about her personal journey from being a child missionary to working as a lawyer to now working within the death industry with her company, Going With Grace. Plus we find out what kind of funeral Alua wants to have and it is far from a stuffy ceremony in a church.
An Edited Transcript Of Our Convo:
Rebecca Lehrer: We know you were born in Ghana, and you went to high school in Colorado and lived in a bunch of other places in between. Why did your family move around so much, and what was it like going from a very, very Black place to a very, very white place?
Alua Arthur: So my family moved around a bunch of because my parents were missionaries. They both found Jesus, probably when I was like three or four, and so we then left to go spread Jesus to the Westernized world because they needed it more than Ghana and the Africans did. We were moving around so much all along, that it never quite felt like going from very Black place to a very white place. There were just a bunch of places in between. We lived in Kenya for awhile, and the building that we lived in had a bunch of Indian folks on the floor, so there were brown people everywhere. There were different smells always coming up. There were some Kenyans, but it was also Southeast Asians and Indians and us, and people from all over living on that floor. Because of those early experiences walking around the earth, spreading Jesus, I think I learned to try to judge people by how kind and loving and accepting and Jesus-like they were, rather than what they looked like, which was a total mind fuck when we got to Colorado.
Rebecca Lehrer: Why? In what way?
Alua Arthur: Well in that everybody there was, not everybody, but a lot of the kids that we went to school with were really rude and mean. They were so mean. They’d call me things like African booty scratcher.
Rebecca Lehrer: No.
Alua Arthur: Yes. African booty scratcher.
Amy S. Choi: No.
Alua Arthur: I mean, I understand that this comes from actual ignorance, but they’d asked me all the time if this were the first time I was wearing clothes or how I got to school or if I wiped my butt with leaves. And I was like, what?
Rebecca Lehrer: Wait can I ask you a question about that, which is that, were you in Nairobi in Kenya?
Alua Arthur: We were in Nairobi in Kenya.
Rebecca Lehrer: That’s the thing is you were in big cities.
Alua Arthur: Big cities.
Rebecca Lehrer: And then you get to Colorado to a not big city.
Alua Arthur: Exactly.
Rebecca Lehrer: Obviously it’s ignorant ass people, who don’t understand how cosmopolitan and worldly everyone else is, but that you’re coming to a smaller place too.
Alua Arthur: Right, majorly.
Rebecca Lehrer: And so they have no concept of your experience living on a floor with Indians and Southeast Asians and Africans from all over Africa.
Alua Arthur: Exactly.
Rebecca Lehrer: But also they’re assholes.
Alua Arthur: Also, eighth grade assholes.
Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, god.
Alua Arthur: I mean eighth grade is tough anyway.
Amy S. Choi: But also eighth grade is old enough to know better.
Alua Arthur: Yeah, you’d think.
Amy S. Choi: Those aren’t five year olds asking those questions or saying those things.
Alua Arthur: No. We’ve had geography by eighth grade, right?
Rebecca Lehrer: Also, a five-year-old wouldn’t even know to ask something like that because it’s so deeply racist and based in something somebody taught you.
Alua Arthur: Absolutely.
Rebecca Lehrer: Whereas maybe, a five-year-old might just be like, “I like you. What’s your story?”
Alua Arthur: Yeah. Yeah. Does your skin tastes like chocolate?
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. That seems less bad? I don’t know.
Alua Arthur: Yeah. That’s a thing too.
Rebecca Lehrer: I mean, you’re like, I wish. It’s delicious.
Alua Arthur: You want to give it a whirl?
Rebecca Lehrer: That’s your pillow talk.
Alua Arthur: Gets them every time. Gets them every time. Oh, guys.
Amy S. Choi: Oh, boy. Okay. So when you moved to Colorado in this situation, the situation where these children were little monsters running around, what was the thing that maintained your connection to Ghana? Was it food? Was it music? Was it clothing? Was it the way that you interpreted your faith? What was the connective thread? I mean, we’ve heard from your sister that your mom was like, in our house, it’s Ghana.
Alua Arthur: Yep. Language spoken at home, food we ate, how she dressed. I mean, we had freedom of expression in our clothing. I generally chose African prints but shown in Western styles, which I still do by and large. So the common thread was in the house. Ghana was in the house, and it would always be in the house. They didn’t speak English at home on purpose because they were like, you are going to retain this language. We ate the food. Christmas time would be full of Ghanaians from the neighborhood or the state coming to converge on our house, just Ghanaians everywhere, everywhere.
Rebecca Lehrer: So we’re going to talk about death.
Alua Arthur: Great.
Rebecca Lehrer: How can we prepare for death? How do we make it more dignified and in a loving and holistic way? How did death become your passion?
Alua Arthur: How much time do we got?
Rebecca Lehrer: All of it.
Amy S. Choi: So much time! Also, now understanding that you were walking around bringing Jesus to the world. I mean, it deepens the question for me. Is death something that you thought about a lot as a kid too, or was this in midlife or later that you started to become really passionate about this?
Rebecca Lehrer: And where is Jesus now for you? So many questions!
Alua Arthur: Jesus? He’s up there. So Jesus is where I was raised and then somewhere along the line I started to really question and have my doubts about some of the stories that I’d heard or had different interpretations and what I’ve been told growing up, which was a battle because it’s cultural, right? I mean, aside from just a religion, it’s like, this is what we do. We went to church on Sunday, and we also went on Wednesday and Friday and Sunday morning and Sunday night. Yet I was like, but this isn’t quite working for me, so how do I identify myself within this thing that is cultural and belief based and everything else, which doesn’t work for me? So Jesus is where we started. But as I grew and wandered through the planet, he went to go serve other purposes in my life.
As far as thinking about death goes, I remember being a kid and hearing this Bible verse: “He who believes in me shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.”
Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, isn’t that the one that’s at the bottom of …
Alua Arthur: Forever 21 bags.
Rebecca Lehrer: And like-
Alua Arthur: In-N-Out.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yes. As a non-Christian, that’s a big thing, and you’re like, oh, my God. In-N-Out has secret Christian things on the bottom of the things.
Alua Arthur: Yeah. Secret Christian.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah and Forever 21 also …
Amy S. Choi: Christian Koreans.
Alua Arthur: Super Christian. I mean, it’s on the bottom of the bag, so everybody’s carrying it around, and it’s the Bible verse of Christianity, and it’s a thing that you repeat to feel or understand or know in order to become a born-again Christian. But I thought, how do you not perish? How would one not perish? And as an adult I’ve begun to look at how we use religion to create this idea of immortality.
I think this idea is also based upon a fear of death — if you can look at what you will do and who you will be in the afterlife, you can walk on streets of gold. You’ll be reunited with everybody, with the father and the son and the holy ghost sitting at the right hand side. Everything’s perfect. Everything’s golden. Then maybe it’s not so scary to die.
But death wasn’t a thing for me. There are some folks that love to visit the cemetery and are in the conversation about death all their lives, but it wasn’t a part of my consciousness at all until I met a woman on a bus in Cuba, really serendipitously, and she had uterine cancer. She was 36 years old. Her name is Jessica. She’s German. And we just started chatting it up primarily because she’d seen me earlier at the bus stop, and we talked about her tattoo. I start ask her questions about her disease and about a possible death from the disease because she was only a couple of years older than I was at the time.
And in talking about it, I was like, why are we not talking about this? I asked if there was anybody that she could talk to about her disease and maybe dying from it. She said her therapist through her oncology program was talking to her about living with disease. There was no conversation about dying from that disease. I thought that was very strange. And I asked who she talked about it with, and she said no one. And I was like, well, you must want to talk about it. It has to be on your mind. I mean, if I had uterine cancer, I’d be wanting to talk about the fact that I might die from this.
So we started talking about it, and it was a fun, interesting, lighthearted, deep, rich conversation where I think we both uncovered a lot about ourselves. We became total besties on the bus ride, but during that ride too, I was looking around, and I was like, God, everybody here is going to die, everybody, everybody on the bus, the bus driver, the guy sitting next to me, all the people outside.
Why this huge secret with death? It’s like we’ve all conspired to hide this thing, but why? And it already felt like it held so much benefit for me in that moment that I thought, well, if we were all doing this more, we could learn more. We could gain more, so thus began my dance with death.
Rebecca Lehrer: So it seems relatively new, this idea of a death doula. Can you tell us just a little bit about what some of the things that you do are?
Alua Arthur: Practically, when people are healthy, I help people create a comprehensive end of life plan that looks like wrapping up all of the affairs of their life. Where are your passwords? What do you want done with your stuff? That’s when advanced directive comes in, really thorough decision making and writing down plans. What do you want your funeral to look like? What do you want? What are your sentimental possessions? Because lawyers will cover the big ticket items in a will typically, but what about that ring that you wear every day? What do you want done with your wedding rings? Who do want to have them? What’s the story behind your wallet? Grandpa’s glasses, that stuff.
And then that carries over a little bit when people know what it is that they’re going to be dying of, if a disease process is what will cause their death. And I say that rather than terminal because we’re all terminal, but so when there is a disease, and it’s pretty sure that that disease is the one that’s going to kill them, I help family members and the people that really love and support the person who’s dying create a death that feels as peaceful as possible.
It is a very high bar, yet even being in the discussion about it creates avenues for greater awareness and understanding and deepening relationships. And then after a death, I help family members wrap up the affairs of their loved one’s life. That service in particular is something that might be pretty unique to what I offer at Going with Grace, which is the name of my company, because I’ve seen a massive need for it. It was part of how the business structure came about, was helping family members after death get all of the stuff done because there’s so much stuff to do.
Rebecca Lehrer: But also our world is this world, and it is so not equipped for that. When my mother-in-law died, and there was a lot that was really well prepared as a family with our advanced directives, we really talked about it. It was as healthy and peaceful as it could be when somebody was tragically dying. But then there’s just, you getting bills a year later that are, you still owe X in dollars for some thing, because there’s no way to kind of undo your life in this place. And it’s so incredibly painful, particularly for the widow or the widower, who are still in that home and dealing with that loss. It’s a lot. We’re just not equipped for it.
Alua Arthur: Death doula-ing is not a new thing, right? Because as long as human beings have been alive, they’ve been dying, and as long as they’ve been dying, there have been people walking them through it, either their immediate family members or somebody in the community, and in other cultures it shows up bigger.
Today, however, we have such complex lives. We live half of it online. There are people that we’ll never meet that feel close to us. There are subscriptions and bills and apartments and so much stuff. I mean, so much stuff that it’s almost cruel that after somebody dies, the people that are left behind do have to go through it with a fine tooth comb and wrap it up.
I remember when my older sister’s husband died. This was after it was already pretty clear that I was going to be doing death work somehow, and he got sick and before long the disease was going to kill him, and so I went to in New York and spent some time with them. And after his death, I remember her sitting on the edge of the couch, just staring out the window, and I was about to go to Germany and get loved up on by my boyfriend because I needed somebody to take care of me for awhile. And so I was trying to get it as clear as possible, the plan. These are the things that you should do, and this is the order in which you should do them.
Okay. So I’m looking at her. And she’s not present. She’s in deep shock, deep, deep, deep in the throes. I, even with my lawyer brain, was still very confused by the process of transferring the title of his car into his nephew’s name. I couldn’t make it make sense. I thought if there was somebody I could call that would just have this answer, that would help so much, we will pay them anything. Just somebody to help, somebody and nobody, nobody was there to help.
Then I’m sitting on the phone with the DMV, waiting for hours, somebody pick up the phone, having to say over and over and over again that my brother-in-law had died— it felt cruel. It felt cruel. I didn’t want my sister to have to do it. I don’t want other people to have to do it. I understand that there is a necessary component in that of grief perhaps, but the way that the bureaucracy is set up, I don’t think we’re taking very good care of each other.
Amy S. Choi: In so much of this, it’s so undesirable to have to, as a healthy person, be like, okay, this is what I might do if my husband dies, or if I die. My husband and I tried to be really responsible. Shortly after I gave birth or maybe it was in my first pregnancy I was like, we’re going to make a will, and we’re going to do this. Those were just the very first steps, right?
But there’s a piece of me that’s like, I can’t. Literally, my mind won’t imagine that. When we think about, again how are our culture informs these kind of big, big, the moments that define our lives, these big spiritual moments, is that an American thing that’s refusing to let me acknowledge that that is true?
Rebecca Lehrer: Or just a human thing.
Amy S. Choi: Or just a human thing? Was there something about your Ghanaian-ness that led you to approach death differently or that informs how you think about it or your anxiety or lack of anxiety around it?
Alua Arthur: I think it’s in my humanness. I’m generally very sensitive, and I don’t want to see people suffer, and what can I do to help. I mean, it might be tied into being the second-born female child. So I’m not quite sure if it is in my Ghanaian-ness. I’m learning that there are parts of my family in Ghana that are very concerned that I might be playing around in the occult or something because I talk death about constantly, and I think it goes back to that thing that we don’t want to talk about it.
Rebecca Lehrer: Was it a WhatsApp message? A guilt trippy Whatsapp message? Because I know all about those.
Alua Arthur: Ha! I was like, oh, huh, well isn’t that something? But it doesn’t really change how I’m doing it because I know what I’m up to, and it just reminded me that there is this other thing that says, don’t talk about it at all because why do you want to talk about it? My dad constantly was like, let’s not talk about it.
I finally got him to do his advanced planning. We have some documents written down, but for a long time he was like, do not bring it up. When you go to Ghana, don’t tell anybody what you do. They’re going to think you’re a witch. I was like, huh, fascinating, and then what?
Amy S. Choi: Two questions. One is that you work all across the country, and you also work all around the world advising people on how to plan and approach death and kind of give people agency in their death, which I think is one of the more really beautiful things and a way of culturally and seismically changing our relationship around death, so it doesn’t feel so fatalistic. We have some agency in how we want our death to go in some way.
Have you noticed a difference in when you’re talking to all these different people in different cultures, are you noticing themes and how different cultures talk about death? Or I don’t know, what kind of musts there are, or does it feel very, very individual?
Alua Arthur: It feels pretty individual. I mean, there are some cultural things that happen and the homegirl Caitlin Doughty wrote this great book called From Here to Eternity, which looks at different cultural practices around death and across the world. But it feels pretty individual because no matter where we grew up, we also still inhabit a particular human expression that is really informed by other things, yet my relationship to death doesn’t look like, I’d say, the average Ghanaian’s relationship to death. I don’t even know if it’s being Ghanaian and Californian, and I say there’s maybe 50 Ghanafornians. My relationship to death doesn’t look like theirs either.
Rebecca Lehrer: Two of them are your family.
Amy S. Choi: We love to talk about mental health and how different cultures and different Mash-Ups approach mental health. When I was really, really struggling with a specific challenge, I wanted somebody to help me who got it. The first filter I went through when I started seeking out a therapist, and this was like four years ago, five years ago, was that I wanted somebody Korean-American. I wanted somebody for whom I did not have to explain what it meant to be who I am to a certain degree.
And so I can imagine the work that you’re doing is, it’s beyond intimate. A birth doula and death doula, those two feel like the two most important kinds of helpers in the world. Does your cultural background, how does that inform, when you’re with a client, do you offer traditions that that you have? Have you found that other Mash-Ups that are similar to you are seeking you out?
Alua Arthur: I have. I found that other Mash-Ups that are somewhat similar to me are also seeking to do this work, so they can serve their communities, which I am so down for. So down for because oftentimes when I walk into the room of people in the end of life space, I’m the only brown person and I mean, let alone a Mash-Up. I’m the only person of color in many end of life care and support care spaces, and it’s challenging. I mean, most of my clients are white, North American as far as they know, or they did some genealogy test and found out out they were from someplace else.
Rebecca Lehrer: Or they’re 1/10th, one bazillionth, Cherokee.
Alua Arthur: Yes, always.
Amy S. Choi: Oh, god.
Alua Arthur: Always, or some based in North Africa.
Amy S. Choi: And they only want to talk it. They want to talk about it so hard.
Alua Arthur: Yeah, the teeny tiny bit! I love the fact that there are more people that are flocking to me to learn how to do this work. I’ve been teaching death doulas also, and my students look like everything, which is so exciting because that wasn’t the class that I sat in, and most definitely, those are not the rooms that I sit in.
I mean, this is the total opposite of sitting with a mash-up family, but I walked into a home in Escondido or someplace, and as I walked in, the daughters who were in their 60s, their dad was about 94, they said, oh, just so you know, he’s terribly racist. And I was like, wait, what? What?
Walk in the door, yeah. Yeah. And before you know it, just spewing epithets, just all types of stuff.
Amy S. Choi: Wow.
Alua Arthur: He was in a lot of pain, physical pain as well, but …
Rebecca Lehrer: That’s what I say when I’m in pain.
Alua Arthur: Naturally, naturally, and I did have to check in and say, huh, I don’t know if I’m the right person to serve you at the moment, but let’s find ways in which we can support this experience you’re having and then I’m going to see my way out. I’ll find you somebody else.
Rebecca Lehrer: In a community I’m a part of, there was a very tragic thing that happened to a child. And because it’s a Jewish-based community, the communications about it to me felt very clear, right? It made me very aware of the way we are all, even without being aware, we are so informed by these things, and what we think death means.
Alua Arthur: Is, and means and the purpose and why and thus what life here on earth means based on what death is or is not. We started out talking about religion, and I work very secularly, right? Religion doesn’t come in unless my client brings it in to the conversation because I find that a lot of people when looking at the end of life then began to question their beliefs. Because if it’s a belief, that means it hasn’t yet been tested, and it will get tested very soon. And so when they know that that belief is going to get tested, I find that people then begin to wonder, well what if, could there be something else? I mean, shoot, even I’m a little concerned near the end of my life, I’m like, shit, should I have gone to church more? I don’t think so. I mean, I want to walk the streets of gold, but …
Rebecca Lehrer: You never know.
Alua Arthur: You never know.
Rebecca Lehrer: Can’t with so much certainty say. Yeah, no, it’s absolutely true.
Alua Arthur: We believe. We don’t know.
Amy S. Choi: In going back to the question about faith, and as somebody who approaches your work secularly, again unless your client brings in their faith, how do you help people walk the line between the spiritual aspect of death and the physical aspect of death and then also just the pure logistical aspect of death. In this conversation, we have talked about Jesus. We have talked about transferring Oprah magazine subscriptions. It’s the whole gamut.
Alua Arthur: Exactly. It’s the whole gamut, which is part of the reason I love this work so much, but you’ll find that all three can be present at all times in most discussions about death. When we are sitting and filling out an advanced planning document and talking about funeral and burial and somebody says, ugh, I really don’t want to think of myself underground. That suggests to me that they believe that the body and the spirit are one, that they think that there’ll be something still of them that’s underground. Then so we can dig into it there.
It’s a very practical conversation, which leads us directly into the spiritual. The two are inextricably linked. The three actually all are. When we are considering our practical things, the next level of the emotional and then the next level after that as a spiritual, that all are available at any point in time, I take my cues from my clients about what it is that they actually need or want to get into and where they might need the most support and go there.
Amy S. Choi: Are you afraid of dying?
Alua Arthur: Not really. I think it might be a fantastic adventure. I think that death actually might be this ride of a lifetime. That’s a pun. But I have concerns about it. I’m a little concerned that I’ll go before my time is up, although I know that when my time is up, it will be up, but I want to do this work the best that I can, and I want to spend my life spreading awareness around death. And I fear, or I’m concerned that I’ll die before I really can impact a lot of people.
I also feel as though if I die as a result of a disease process, that my death is going to be a fantastical fantastical. I’m going to talk about it nonstop. I’m going to use my death to do that thing that I am doing with my life, and if it’s an accident, or it happens very quickly, then perhaps that won’t be possible and then I’ll just have to trust that I did the thing that I set out to do.
Rebecca Lehrer: Well. How do you envision your funeral?
Alua Arthur: Oh, yeah. My funeral is going to be fun. I’d like it to be a party. I’d like it to happen probably around like 3:00 PM, start around three, so that people actually arrive around four.
Rebecca Lehrer: This is a real mash-up issue.
Alua Arthur: Mash-ups on time.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, because you got to tell them two to three hours at a time.
Alua Arthur: Come early. Come early. I’d like it to be outside in a park someplace, someplace with some trees. I’m imagining some place in Topanga if I’m still here, with my jewelry hanging all over the place, decorating it, bright colors and turquoise and corals and reds and yellows. I’d like some photos from my travel to be blown up and on easels all over the place. I’d like there to be a lot of food, definitely alcohol, music. There’s a few songs I can think of. I’d like people to share stories. I would like there to be a very short formal program, but afterward I’d like people just to be with each other and to be with what’s left of me that they still got.
Rebecca Lehrer: Do you want there to be a component of you where the actual, whatever is left of your physical self?
Alua Arthur: My body?
Rebecca Lehrer: Your body or cremated or whatever that is. Do you want that to be a part of it?
Alua Arthur: I would like my body to be there in a hot pink and orange raw silk shroud. I haven’t found it yet. I’m still looking. But I’m getting close to finding it. I’d like my body to be there and then as the sun goes down because dusk is my favorite time of day, I’d like the body to leave and then everybody just get drunk and get loud, have a good ol’ party and then I go off to my green burial.
Amy S. Choi: Do you think about how you want people to grieve you? This is an obsession that I had when I was a child. I would write, imagine the eulogies that other people would give —
Rebecca Lehrer: Me too!
Amy S. Choi: And then preemptively get angry that they weren’t saying them the right way.
Rebecca Lehrer: That’s so funny that you would do that. Wait, this is such a good example of the difference between the two of us. Whatever, we could probably say it’s something with astrology, but I think it’s just who we are. You got angry that they didn’t say it the right way, and I would be weeping about how amazing I was or the things people said about me. But I 100% would go to through the whole, what people were saying about me. It was a check in to see am I doing okay.
Alua Arthur: Are you still using that? Do you still do it with any regularity or frequency?
Rebecca Lehrer: Not enough.
Amy S. Choi: I don’t think, maybe I should rewrite my eulogies and get mad at my husband for not delivering it the right way. Another thing that I would absolutely will do in next couple of weeks … No, but I do think a lot more about what it will mean when I die and how I want, not so much how I want to be remembered because there’s a piece of me that doesn’t give a fuck, right, and then there’s another piece of me that’s the older I get, and the more I think about death, and now having two children, I have a much more laser focus on what I want my life to be and what’s worth it for me to do and feels like the investment that then I want to give to my kids.
I hope everybody understands that this is so joyful and talking about death can do what you have said, which is to just make you think about what your life means, and what we want to do and how to make ourselves invest in ourselves right now because we’re all going to die.
Alua Arthur: Yeah because otherwise, what is the point of spending time on this scary, impossibly heavy, painful subject … otherwise, there’s no other benefit to considering it. It’s going to happen anyway. We can choose if we’re going to use it for life to encourage life, or we can just be fearful and reach there anyway.
Rebecca Lehrer: I mean, they really are the two options.
Alua Arthur: That’s it.
Rebecca Lehrer: There’s no other ones.
Alua Arthur: You’re going there anyway. How are you going to go?
Rebecca Lehrer: How are you going to go? How are you going to go?