Elvis Presley's granddaughter becomes a 'death doula'

Kristine Tarbert
·Features and Health Editor
·5-min read

Just eight months after losing her brother Ben Keough, Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough made a touching announcement that she has just completed her training to become a death doula.

Taking to her Instagram account, the actress said she wanted to write a "deep thank you" to the community of people teaching "conscious dying and death work."

Riley Keough attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Riley Keough is now a death doula. Photo: Getty

"We are taught that it’s a morbid subject to talk about. Or were so afraid of it that we’re unable to talk about it... then, of course, it happens to us, and we are very ill-prepared," she wrote.

"I think it's so important to be educated on conscious dying and death the way we educate ourselves on birth and conscious birthing. We prepare ourselves so rigorously for the entrance and have no preparation for our exit. So I'm so grateful for this community and to be able to contribute what I can."

Riley noted she'd gone through the Art of Death Midwifery Training Course by Sacred Crossings, a Los Angeles–based institute that offers workshops and classes in conscious dying and home funerals — both part of a growing movement to approach death through a more old-fashioned and intimate lens: as a non-commercial, non-medical family and community experience.

Elvis Presley's grandchildren Ben Keough (L) and Riley Keough stand in front of Graceland during a proclamation of Elvis Presley Day by Memphis and Shelby County officials at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee January 8, 2015.  Over 1,000 fans from around the world braved freezing temperatures to celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of the late singing legend.  REUTERS/Karen Pulfer Focht (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY)
Ben Keough, left, and Riley Keough, pictured at Graceland in 2015. Photo: Reuters

"When a body is whisked away moments after death, this window closes, often permanently, leaving families feeling helpless, unsure and wishing they had a little more time," the Sacred Crossings website reads.

It's possible that Riley felt that way after her brother Benjamin Keough died last July, as it's not unusual for those who become a death doula (also called an end-of-life doula or death midwife) to have had a profound loss — compounded by an upsetting medical or funereal experience — and to then want to support others in their experience of death.

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"For folks who do this work, often it is in response to experiences with significant loss… who can respond by helping other people," Dawn Walsh, a death doula and co-founder of the Lily House, tells Yahoo, noting that she was in her 20s when her mother died violently. 

"It is the case with me," she says, adding that she essentially felt like "a spectator" during the rituals that followed. "It's a calling, end-of-life work… It's not something that you just do casually."

Photo: Instagram/Riley Keough
Photo: Instagram/Riley Keough

What is a death doula, exactly?

A death doula is essentially someone who assists and guides a person through the process of their death.

"It's somebody who is there for emotional support, spiritual support, educational support — a friend to literally walk the path with you and help guide you," says Dawn, also a home-funeral guide and leader of community death workshops. 

"And a big role, which might sound overly simplistic but is profound and powerful, is of simply being there, of bearing witness — of creating an atmosphere of calm and ease that this is going to be OK, and if you have any fears or worries or anxieties, I can help you unpack them and work with through them." 

The doula is also there to help emotionally support loved ones of the person who is dying, by mediating family dynamics or facilitating conversations. 

Alua Arthur, a death doula and founder of the LA–based Going with Grace, which offers doula training and end-of-life planning services, also tells Yahoo a "death doula is somebody who does all the non-medical care and support".

Alua ended a decade-long career as a Legal Aid lawyer after a trip to Cuba, during which she met a woman on a bus who told her she had uterine cancer. "I asked her, 'What happens if you die from it?' and she said, 'Thank you for asking,' because nobody was asking — the focus was all on her surviving and beating cancer. That made me really sad because death affects everyone. Why don't we engage with it like it is a reality?"

Alua Arthur, left, with a client. (Photo courtesy of Going With Grace)
Alua Arthur, left, with a client. (Photo courtesy of Going With Grace)

Six months later, Alua recalls, her brother became terminally ill, and she sat with him and her sister and her niece "as he drew his last breath." From that experience, she says, "I saw the practical need for what [death doulas] actually looked like." 

Now, through Going with Grace, she works with three different groups of people: the healthy, who want to create comprehensive end-of-life plans; the survivors of those who die, who need help caring for their loved one's body and wrapping up affairs; and people who are approaching death themselves. "I help them create their deathbed, lend emotional support, help them wrap up their affairs — everything from the lighting of room to prayers, aromatherapy, music, whatever their desires are."

Through her training programs, Alua says she's taken note that many people have wound up there after experiencing personal loss, like Riley, "trying to turn pain into purpose."

Alua says she welcomes the spotlight that Riley's Instagram post has brought to death doulas. 

"You have to feel it — there has to be a big, big, big, big why," she says of entering the field. 

"When I started in 2012, people looked at me like I'd grown a second head. … But there weren’t grandchildren of late celebrities talking about death and dying." 

Now, she adds, "Any way it gets into the public consciousness, I’m down for."

Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.

Additional reporting by Beth Greenfield.

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