The movement to bring death out of the shadows and into cultural consciousness and regular conversation is known as the Death Positivity Movement. The goal of Death Positivity is to acknowledge that death happens to everyone (duh!) and, thus, should be talked about like any other natural phase of life. The Death Positivity Movement is needed because of the pervasive death denial in our culture. We are taught to avoid talk of death, to delay aging as long as possible, and act as though we will live forever. Talk of death is not considered part of polite conversation. When we do speak of our death, we often soften it with the phrase, “If I die…..” as if it were optional! Among other things, the Death Positivity Movement encourages us to embrace the phrase, “When I die……”
Many people suffer death anxiety and fear (called thanatophobia) due, in part, to our cultural avoidance of death. Sometimes death avoidance manifests in the lack of acknowledgment of the deaths of loved ones. Family members may avoid visiting loved ones in the hospital or in hospice care. At the time of death, families may decide not to hold a funeral or memorial to avoid having to talk about their loss. Other times, one might decide not to attend a funeral or memorial of a close friend or family member. While at its extreme thanatophobia can be a debilitating disorder best dealt with through counseling, less severe thanatophobia can be addressed by talking about and acknowledging our own deaths and the deaths of others. For example, by attending a funeral or memorial, one might find that it isn’t so scary. Funerals and memorials are often joyful times of remembering the deceased, as well as acknowledging the loss. In my experience, many times tears are mixed with laughter.
The Order of the Good Death has done a lot to move the Death Positivity Movement forward. Caitlyn Doughty is not afraid to frankly address all aspects of death. (I highly recommend her videos, which are informative, slightly irreverent, and very funny.) End-of-Life Doulas (or Death Doulas) are also helping people to face death head-on. Just like birth doulas, Death Doulas help people transition from one phase of life to the next – in this case, from life into death.
Studies suggest that the closer we get to death, and the more we talk about death, the more death positive we become. As I’ve shared here before, I’m glad to be involved in local Death Talks. One (happily) surprising discovery for me is that most of the participants I’ve met are young (say younger than 40). This is encouraging to me.
I hope that my work designing and officiating unique, personalized funeral and memorial rituals can add to the Death Positivity Movement. Honoring, rather than avoiding, the death of a loved one is healthy and life-affirming. When we reflect on the life and death of one we love, we can consider what of them we want to carry with us in our own lives. Acknowledging our own death allows us to live with intention, considering what we want our loved ones to remember of us after we die. In the words of William Sloane Coffin, “Death cannot be the enemy if it is death that brings us to life… just as without leave-taking, there can be no arrival; just as without growing old, there can be no growing up; just as with no tears, no laughter, so without death there could be no living.”
Does the thought of talking about death make you nervous? Have you experienced thanatophobia? Have you become more death positive with age and experience? If so, what in particular has helped you become more accepting of death?