“Death and taxes” is a popular idiom about the few certainties of life. Some taxes may be avoidable, but there are no exemptions for death, even with today’s medical advancements. So, since death remains undefeated, why aren’t we having more open conversations about our inevitable demise? What should we do now to ensure our death wishes will be granted? How can an honest assessment and examination of death lead us to live better? The death positive movement aims to answer all those questions and more.
The Origins and Definition of Death Positivity
Those who have heard the term “death positive” may associate it with the lighter, clickbaity parts of the movement. For example, there are countless profiles about death cafés: pop-up gatherings of “quirky” people casually chatting about death over coffee. Participants can talk about their fears, hopes, and wishes in a safe and nonjudgmental space. Death cafés are among the earliest pieces of the death positive movement to visibly show up in our modern society, so they tend to get a lot of media shine. “Living” fungus caskets and other “alternative” funeral and burial plans also dominate the overall picture of the death positive movement. Death positivity—it’s cool, it’s green, and it’s trendy, right? Not exactly.
Green death practices and death cafés play a role in the movement; however, the crux of death positivity is about leaning into our natural curiosity surrounding death to quell fears. Mortician, writer, activist, and death positive movement leader Caitlin Doughty gives us a death positive definition in a Brut America video profile.
“Here’s what the death positive movement doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that you’re real positive about death. You’re not like ‘Whoo my mom died!’ Death positive is saying it’s okay to be interested in death. So being death positive is saying we want to improve our culture. We want to have more eco-friendly death practices. We want to have better conversations around death and nobody has to hide that.”
The death positive movement gained widespread traction with a tweet. In 2013, Doughty sent out the following message to ask a simple yet poignant question:
Why are there a zillion websites and references to being sex positive and nothing for being death positive?— Caitlin Doughty Updates (@TheGoodDeath) April 28, 2013
At the time, Doughty’s work as a death positive advocate and educator was already in motion. She gained a following thanks to her Ask a Mortician YouTube series, which launched in 2011 and still exists today. She uses her expertise and pitch-perfect sense of humor to answer some common questions about death and funerals.
That same year, Doughty also launched Order of the Good Death non-profit collective after reaching out to funeral professionals, artists, and others whose work involves shifting our overall culture of death phobia towards talking about and preparing for their mortality. Her death positive tweet sparked a wave of conversation about how society’s avoidance of “death talk” is unhealthy. In the aforementioned video, Doughty further addressed why we need to face one of life’s biggest fears.
“It’s not that you can’t find death everywhere. You find it in the news, you find it on the Internet, you find it in cartoons, you find it in crime shows. It’s absolutely everywhere and it shows how obsessed we are underneath the surface subconsciously with our own mortality. But I think we should bring it out into the open. Subconscious fear of death drives us in negative ways whereas open fear of death or open acknowledgement of our own deaths can help us in positive ways.”
Of course, there are many people who grew up in death positive environments because of their cultural beliefs. Order of the Good Death Director Sarah Chavez grew up in a Latinx family where “death talk” was normal. She opened up to Nerdist about her family and their relationship to death.
“You cannot have a conversation with my grandmother without her bringing up some aspect of her funeral planning because she has the whole thing planned right down to the Tom Jones songs she wants played. And so there was always this consciousness…My father and mother and their partners were all a part of the film industry. So I essentially spent my entire childhood on a movie set.
I watched hundreds of these super choreographed, fake Hollywood deaths being recreated over and over again. That’s a little weird and surreal… but there came a time when my father was on a set and several deaths took place. And that completely changed everything. The adults that were very open and honest immediately changed—they didn’t want to talk about death and what happened became closed off. As a child I didn’t understand why everyone changed so drastically.”
Despite this shift in openness, Chavez’s formative years set her on a path towards death positive activism. Prior to her work with the Order of the Good Death, Chavez became a property historian in 2010 in her own diverse East LA neighborhood. Her first assignment was to protect the stories and facts around a local abandoned hospital to ensure authenticity. She also wanted to make sure that outsiders couldn’t come in and tell stories that would cast a negative light on residents and communities. It was through this work that she further understood how much people needed more in-depth conversations about death.
“I started doing more historical projects for other properties and that intersected a lot with people’s curiosity about deaths and locations,” Chavez said. “In working with the public on these sites that are somehow associated with death and beliefs about the afterlife and that are right there in the community, I saw how people were really wanting a space and a place to talk about their fears or experiences or grief.”
The Order of the Good Death’s Plans and Purpose
The death positive movement includes vital work that fights back against cultural appropriation, systemic racism, anti-LGBTQ sentiments, and general fear and lack of preparation for a certain event. The Order of the Good Death plays a critical role in spreading the ideals of death positivity with eight principles/beliefs that members are expected to uphold as they become allies to help others’ achieve their post-mortem wishes. The website has a wide range of information about embalming, decomposition, funeral planning, and more.
UCLA Collection Strategies Librarian, author, and Order of the Good Death staff member Megan Rosenbloom tells us more about the organization’s important work.
“We are always amplifying voices of people with [death positive] books, conferences, and different perspectives to bring to the table. We’re also thinking about who we aren’t hearing from and getting them to talk about certain death practices or history from their experience. One thing we have done is work with a lawyer put together a list of tools for trans people to make legal filings in their state to protect their name in death.
A lot of times if people are estranged from their family who are still next of kin things happen so fast with the funeral that people end up getting deadnamed or dressed in clothes they wouldn’t wear. But if you have a paper that says, like, ‘I designate this person to make those decisions,’ that offers protection. To have some control over what happens when you can’t make decisions for yourself anymore is very empowering for people.”
Rosenbloom, a former medical librarian, is the Co-Founder and Director of Death Salon. This branch of the Order encourages intellectual conversations about death through events with an 18th-century spirit. She met Doughty several years ago when the latter was a newer mortician and the Order was simply an idea. Rosenbloom’s background as a librarian and organizing whiz led her to become a key member in helping Order of the Good Death conduct events and build its network of supporters.
1. It is impossible to consider what constitutes a good death while so many are forced to endure the constant reality of bad, violent deaths, and exist in a perpetual state of fear and mourning. pic.twitter.com/wMq8QEMtsV— OrderoftheGoodDeath (@OrderGoodDeath) May 30, 2020
The Order has quite a few followers and members but the team is surprisingly small. Chavez says there are only three main organization staffers but they still manage to cover a lot of ground. The team creates a host of videos, articles, podcasts, and online resources on top of donating directly to community organizations.
“One of the things we do is fund other organizations and individuals who are addressing disparities and deaths within their community,” Chavez affirmed. “This includes deaths at the US-Mexico border. We’ve donated to a number of places that do everything from search for remains to provide support for families to pay for the care and transportation of families to the location of their missing loved one when their remains are found. We help with funding the documentation of their belongings and the bodies so they can hopefully be found at a later date. We also work with homeless hospices and organizations that provide suicide hotlines and emergency services for the trans community.”
She said that anyone can make a difference through educating themselves on the website and taking effective actions. Chavez specifically mentioned how many emails they receive each day with organizations and people who need help. For example, they could have someone reach out who is looking for resources about LGBTQ-friendly funeral homes. The Order of the Good Death also aims to partner with those who can craft bills, create protection laws to protect certain burial spaces, and start programs to make sure all people are properly cared for after their deaths.
“We need people to create programs that are in place for mortuary science students so they can take care of natural hair and non-white skin and be able to serve all of their community. I’m hopping on the phone with lawyers to help a mother who isn’t able to access her stillborn child’s remains from a hospital or trying to help a person in a small town who has a fear of being misgendered in death. There are so many things that need to be done. And this movement is for everyone anywhere where there is a need.”
How Death Positivity Shows Up During COVID-19 and Social Injustice
One important tenet of the death positive movement is helping people achieve what they consider to be a “good” death. However, many people face systemic racism and untimely deaths due to racist ideology. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor loom heavy in the minds of Black people. Many realize their own demise could also be a violent, horrific tragedy.
Immigrant families are in deplorable US Border Patrol detainment centers that can lead to their deaths. In 2019, Jimmy Aldaoud, a man who lived in the US since his childhood and died from diabetes complications after being deported to Iraq, an unfamiliar land to him. His deportation led to him living on the streets without vital medication. In 2020, people across socioeconomic backgrounds struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. It all leads to a necessary question: how does death positivity show up in the midst of all of this? Rosenbloom offered an answer.
To hold myself accountable longterm, I'll be funding a scholarship for Black mortuary students in honor of Henrietta Duterte, the first female funeral home owner.— Caitlin Doughty Updates (@TheGoodDeath) June 4, 2020
This is an idea I should have had a long time ago, I'm ashamed it took this cultural moment to make it happen.
“When it comes to state violence you cannot say ‘Oh yeah, I’m death positive but I don’t care about that.’ because that’s not full death positivity. It’s incumbent upon us to be speaking out against the things that cause people to take away someone’s agency around their death. The nature of this movement allows a lot of people to have these conversations and invoke death positivity into the framework of what’s being talked about right now like Black Lives Matter.
What are the things we need to support that stop things that take that agency from people? What sort of lights do we need to shine? We have to do that to every extent possible…If anyone can think that we are not striving every day to be more inclusive and that we’re not a social justice movement with everything that entails then we are not doing a good enough job of telling you who we are.”
Chavez reinforced this sentiment and addressed how a lack of respect for others’ practices is also a major issue. For instance, the treatment of a person’s body affects what happens to their souls.
“It’s impossible for someone to consider what would constitute a good death for themselves while so many other people are forced to face this reality of a bad death. They are not able to access the support and services that they need to accomplish their idea of a good death. This should be a fundamental part of our society.
You have many people who believe that it doesn’t matter what happens to the body. But the other side of that is for a lot of religions and cultures, this matters a lot. It’s not just the respect of the body itself but the afterlife. If the body isn’t taken care of in a specific way at a specific time according to their beliefs, then there are consequences in the afterlife.”
The Collective for Radical Death Studies (CRDS), of which Chavez is a founding member, focuses specifically on doing anti-racist work surrounding death. The group is mostly people of color who want to reexamine death studies through a more diverse lens via decolonization. CRDS aligns with Chavez’s overall passion for highlighting issues in marginalized communities which impact how they experience death.
As expected, the COVID-19 crisis affects death positive work in several ways. Rosenbloom’s Death Salon events were already on a hiatus pre-pandemic. Now, she’s not sure when they will be able to resume in-person meetings. However, this pandemic is reinforcing the need to continue their work and encourage people to talk about death.
It’s unsurprising that COVID-19 has presented new challenges to the movement. “When we feel threatened by death or triggered by reminders of death, we double down on beliefs and they can end up being incredibly intensified,” Chavez said. “We’ve seen that all year long where people have been hoarding things, being defiant, and not caring about people by not wearing their masks. It’s the ‘my rights are being infringed upon’ group with some harmful religious, nationalist, and racist beliefs.”
A nationwide, and perhaps global, mitigating of that fear could lead people to react in more empathetic and rational ways. And, with so many people needing mental/emotional/financial/advocacy support from themselves and, Order of the Good Death is busier than ever.
What We Gain from Being Death Positive
The death positive movement is a space where people can expand themselves in a positive way. They will know what they should have in place to ensure their friends and family understand their end-of-life wishes. Death positivity allows a person to gain empowerment and affirm that their questions and curiosities are not wrong. They can attain a healthier respect for others’ wishes that don’t mirror their own. Rosenbloom also says it can help a person ease their anxiety about their own demise. They can perhaps become a better support person in times of bereavement.
“When something gives me anxiety, I find that learning about it helps me. If there are certain elements of it that I can then prepare for or control it gives me a little bit of comfort as opposed to being thrown into a horrible situation. If and when someone dies in my life now I am able to be more present in what’s going on and deal with the loss instead of internally panicking about what I will do next.
Or, being like ‘Oh this means I’m gonna die someday and I haven’t really dealt with that idea.’ Once you learn some skills it can help you be a better friend. Instead of trying to fix the problem or go to horrible clichés you can sit with them and say ‘This sucks. I’m angry for you. I’m upset with you. I’m here for you. I can help you specifically in these ways to make your life easier.’ instead of the canned responses.”
Chavez and Rosenbloom encourage others to become community advocates to shift the overall culture. It can be as simple as sharing posts on the website along with videos and community events. If people want to lend monetary support to the Order, then they can grab merchandise or make donations through the website. Either way, it helps to spread the word about death positivity.
Death positivity goes beyond the scope of your life and inner circle. If a person wants more open talk about death, then there have to be conversations about life. What barriers stand in the way of access to information and resources about end-of-life planning? What social constructs keep people from attaining the health resources for the best chance at longevity and a healthy life?
How do we all fight against systems and people who subject others to a traumatic demise? Yes, your choice of songs, flowers, and burial methods remain important for your own celebration of life. But Order of the Good Death’s fifth principle sums up the larger need best:
I believe that the laws that govern death, dying and end-of-life care should ensure that a person’s wishes are honored, regardless of sexual, gender, racial or religious identity.
It’s more than just changing ourselves. It’s about breaking down barriers and causing an ideological shift in the world.
Featured Image: Pexels