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How a Death Doula Throws a Dinner Party

by Marko Florentino
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As a child, Rebecca Illing would spend vacations with her parents and brother, Alex, at Paço da Glória, a gothic mansion turned guesthouse in Portugal’s lush Minho region. A 40-minute drive north of Porto, then the family’s hometown, the property is surrounded by dense cork oak woodland, and Illing loved getting lost on its grounds and exploring its winding corridors. Parts of the house date to the 14th century, and it grew haphazardly from there: An imposing dark gray stone facade topped with medieval-style merlons was added in the 1700s; later, the English peer Lord Peter Pitt Millward reimagined the home in the style of a Baroque palace. In the 1970s, it became a guesthouse under the stewardship of another Briton, Colin Clark, the filmmaker and author of the 2020 memoir “My Week with Marilyn.”

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For the past 21 years, the 10-acre estate — with its bright green lawns and grand granite swimming pool — has been owned by Illing’s family. (Her mother, who met Illing’s father in Porto, had always dreamed of buying the place.) And since 2022, following renovations of the nine guest rooms and the installation of a yoga deck and indoor pool, the property has been run exclusively by Illing herself as a guesthouse of a different sort: one that is, to use her phrase, “grief literate.”

Illing, who lives for most of the year in London with her husband, the multidisciplinary English artist and musician Richie Culver, 45, and their three children, is an end-of-life doula, trained to assist with the dying process and to offer grief support and guidance to family. With Paço da Glória, she wants to parlay her skills into helping larger groups by hosting dinners, talks and, later this year, a bereavement retreat for young families, named Camp Alex, after her brother, who died suddenly in 2020. “Grief is lonely, and it got me thinking about using this space to connect people,” she says. “I’m not a hotelier. I want people to come and learn about how to have these conversations, how to talk to their children about death and how to wonder at the mystery of life.”

To that end, Illing recently hosted a dinner at the property for 10 or so friends from London and Porto on the theme of nostalgia. Her co-host was her lifelong friend Lucy Varanda, 37, a Berlin-based baker and chef. “We’ve known each other almost since birth, so every conversation has a touch of nostalgia — our favorite childhood foods, friends, memories of my mother and brother, heartaches and celebrations,” Illing says. The weather was suitably atmospheric: Drinks began on the main lawn under gray clouds, then moved inside when rain began to fall. The banquet table in the home’s cavernous hall had been set for the meal, and once everyone had found their seat, the group talked long into the night beneath the vaulted wooden ceiling. After dessert, they had only to head downstairs and cross the courtyard to find their beds.

The attendees: Illing, 37, invited childhood friends including Francisca Campos, 33, who helps manage the estate, and Zoe Graham, 39, a co-C.E.O. of her family’s Portuguese winery, Churchill’s. Other locals included the Lisbon-based art director Marcelo Alcaide, 35, and the Caminha-based artist Nettie Burnett, 75, who created the wave-shaped sculpture woven from willow reeds in the property’s orchard as a memorial for Illing’s brother, a keen surfer. The London-based contingent included the Brazilian artist Antonio Tarsis, 28, and his gallerist, Vanessa Carlos,40; the artist and curator Bianca Chu, 35; and Elizabeth Sorensen, 42, the co-founder of the mental health practice Portobello Behavioural Health.

The table: The off-white linen tablecloth, terra-cotta-colored linen napkins and glasses were all sourced from the Porto homewares store Tuwaterra, which is run by Illing’s friend Joana Warren Verandah Gagaen. To light the large hall, more than 100 candles were placed around the room in glass or silver candlesticks and candelabras, either family heirlooms or pieces left behind by previous occupants. (Each time the house has changed hands, it’s been sold with all its contents.)

The food: Varanda described the dinner format as an “elevated picnic”: a spread, served on platters in the center of the table, from which everyone could help themselves. “Sharing adds a social aspect,” she says. “Even if you’re a shy person, if you have to ask someone to pass a plate or share from the same loaf of bread, it engages you in some way.” First came a series of vegetable-based dishes, many of them made with produce from the property’s garden, including fresh local goat cheese and beetroot; sautéed grelos (a local bitter green); brown-butter-braised leeks and oranges; and charred black lime cabbage in a butter tomato sauce, served with braided loaves and hunks of focaccia. The main course was a light, tender gnocchi with salmoriglio (a blend of herbs, lemon and olive oil); dessert was a rich chocolate mousse with candied grapefruit, served alongside a silky fig-leaf flan. “My mother’s favorite fruits were figs,” Illing says.

The drinks: Graham supplied an array of Churchill’s Douro Valley wines, including, for the aperitif, a white port, honey-sweet and golden-toned from the skin-on fermentation process.

The music: When the Wi-Fi acted up in the hall, a portable speaker was installed in the large adjoining bathroom. Alcaide, the art director, had made a playlist that included tracks from “Aquaphoria,” an album of ambient-heavy mixes by the musician Kelela and her collaborator the D.J. Asmara, and the echo in the tile-covered room suited the record’s haunting vocals.

The conversation: Guests were invited to bring along a small object associated with a personal memory to serve as a conversation starter. Burnett chose a wax-covered notebook in which she registers her family’s dates of birth and death using codified hole-like markings burned with a magnifying glass. Graham presented a camellia from her childhood home in Porto’s Caminhos do Romântico neighborhood, and many guests recalled the parties she once threw there. Illing had selected a small shell filled with sand that her brother had collected from the beach beside his home. Unsurprisingly, the conversation lingered on loss, but it was heartwarming rather than heavy. “I find my work very energizing, and I think that’s the interesting, unexpected element,” Illing says.

Two entertaining tips: Illing recommends proposing a theme, as she did, and asking everyone to bring something relevant to break the ice. “I like to encourage guests to get straight into asking questions and sharing and getting vulnerable,” she says, adding, “Also, candles — lots and lots of candles.”



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