From end of life doulas to opera, Ypsilanti embraces unconventional approaches to death and grief

In Ypsilanti, many community members are using creativity and building community to shift social perspectives on death.
Despite being natural and inevitable, death is a particularly difficult subject to broach in the United States. Brighton Hospice, a hospice care provider with locations throughout the country, describes America as "a death-denying culture," where it is commonplace not to talk about or acknowledge death, while logically understanding it as reality. But in Ypsilanti, many community members are using creativity and building community to shift social perspectives on death.

Hanna Hasselschwert, owner of Acacia End of Life Services in Ypsilanti, is an end of life doula. The International End of Life Doula Association defines an end of life doula as someone who "provides companionship, comfort and guidance to those facing a terminal illness or death" and "offers resources to help the dying person, along with their family and loved ones, make informed decisions in a supportive environment." 

At Acacia End of Life Services, Hasselschwert uses skills from her doula training as well as her own experience to help individuals and families come to terms with death and grief in a healthy, non-judgmental way. Hasselschwert herself lost her father at a young age and found herself unable to truly grieve the loss until she was an adult.

"Every year since I was nine I’ve dealt with at least one death in my family," Hasselschwert says. "I feel very passionate about giving people space to grieve."
Acacia End of Life Services owner Hanna Hasselschwert.
To extend that space, Hasselschwert began hosting a monthly death cafe at Ypsi’s Stone and Spoon Gallery. The cafe is a public discussion group where any topics regarding death are "on the table," according to Hasselschwert. The cafe is the local iteration of a "social franchise" that began in East London in 2011 before quickly spreading across the world. 

"It’s an open conversation where we talk about things like mortality, grieving, or burial options," Hasselschwert says. "We have people that come regularly, but we see new people all the time, too. Anyone who stops in even once helps to bring the movement forward."

Hasselschwert decided to host the cafe at Stone and Spoon after speaking with Stone and Spoon owner Jen Eastridge, who wanted to find more ways to utilize the store’s gallery space. But Hasselschwert also felt that Ypsilanti was the "perfect place" for an event that helps attendees feel comfortable openly discussing death and related topics.

"Ypsi is so progressive and open to things," she says. "We have a wonderful community, and it’s so important."

Local creatives are also exploring death-related topics, both to normalize discussions surrounding death and to come to terms with their own fears. Local composer Grey Grant explores Western death culture in their upcoming opera "Little Histories," which will be presented by their experimental theater company Fifth Wall Performing Arts. The opera considers the end of life through a lens of love instead of fear.
Fifth Wall Performing Arts co-founder Grey Grant.
"I wanted to have some contrast between love and death, and why the loss that we feel is so strong and difficult to reconcile," Grant says. "Suddenly it became a piece about my relationship with my partner, and I had the idea of a contemplative thing of a mortician embalming a body and reflecting on death culture."

Though the piece was originally written as a commission for San Francisco vocalist Elliott Franks, Grant transformed the song cycle into a full-length opera to be performed at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor Jan. 27 and 28. Grant hopes that the intimate nature of the performance space will allow audience members to consider the heavy subject matter of death in a communal environment.

"I’ve selected some songs that relate to the subject matter that are contemplative of death and love, and the audience is invited to sing along, which moves into the ‘fifth wall space,’" Grant explains. "We’re all together creating, and I hope to see joyous and enthusiastic participation."

Grant emphasizes that "Little Histories" is meant to highlight society’s relationship to death, occasionally making light of the subject while still taking it very seriously. They say the project has helped them move beyond their personal fear of death to a more neutral approach, and to look more critically at the way society generally treats death.

"A lot of death culture, particularly white middle-class death culture, a lot of the rituals we’ve built over time, have a certain formality to them where we’re forced to be distant from our emotions. We aren’t allowed to wail and weep as you may see in other cultures where it’s acceptable to grieve so heavily," Grant says. "With this I want to normalize feeling the feelings so people can find a way into grief and through grief."
Author Ken MacGregor.
Ypsi creators are also exploring grief through writing. Local writer Ken MacGregor, who specializes in horror, has explored darker topics through his writing for years. But after an unimaginable loss, writing became a form of catharsis and a healing tool for himself and others.

"When my wife passed away in 2018, I was a useless mess for a long time," MacGregor says. "I was very open about it on Facebook because I needed to do it for my own sanity, and thought it could help others who may be grieving, who can’t express themselves in that way. It was an effort to communicate how difficult an experience it is."

One of these Facebook posts would later become "Monster," a short story depicting the feeling of grief as a physical entity inflicting pain that never truly goes away. While MacGregor says writing hasn’t necessarily "changed [his] view of death or death culture," it has made the concept of grief and the grieving process easier for him to handle – and to help others going through similar circumstances.

"Grief forever alters the way you look at the world and how you react to things," MacGregor says. "You develop better coping mechanisms as time goes on. It’s not as raw, but it’s forever there."

While "Monster" is only available to read through MacGregor’s Facebook page at the moment, he says he is currently working with a publisher and illustrator to turn the story into an all-ages graphic novel for others to utilize in explaining grief and death to those who may not have the words to do it themselves.
Grey Grant, Hanna Hasselschwert, and Ken MacGregor.
"When it hits its ideal form, I think it’s going to be really cool and impactful, and will really resonate with anyone who has been through this experience," he says. "People are often uncomfortable when they’re grieving. They don’t want to be around people, and hopefully this gives them something to know someone gets it. That would be huge."

While death may feel like a scary or taboo topic to discuss, many in Ypsi seek to foster community among those who have experienced great loss and those looking to support their grieving loved ones and friends. Learning more can take many forms, whether seeing a theatrical performance or sitting down with a book, but Hasselschwert says sometimes the best thing to do while grieving or supporting someone else’s grief is just to listen.

"Folks new to the cafe can share, or they can just sit and observe, whatever works to feel comfortable in the space," Hasselschwert says. "And everytime, I leave with so much gratitude."

For more information on the death cafe at Stone and Spoon, follow Acacia End of Life Services on Facebook. To learn more about "Little Histories" or to purchase tickets, visit fifthwallperformingarts.com. To keep up with MacGregor or to purchase his books, visit his website or Facebook page.

"Once you come to terms with the fact you’re going to die, you appreciate life more," Hasselschwert says. "You’ll see death can be an easy and open conversation."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by 
Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.