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What is the “Death Positive” Movement?

The Death Positive Movement

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Quick take: The Death Positive movement encourages people to think and talk freely about death. Distinctives include a focus on family-centered funerals, hands-on participation in the body preparation and burial/cremation, “green” and natural burial options, more affordable burial and cremation choices, meaningful rituals and ceremony, and an acceptance of death and decay as part of the natural world

Introduction

When you hear the word “funeral,” you probably get some sort of image of suits and ties, black dresses and veils, a stately church or chapel, a heavy casket. Words like grief, dreary, formal, morose, sad, depressing, cemetery, expensive.

How about the word “death”? What comes to mind? Do you think macabre, gothic, dark? Or pain, loss, cancer, grief? Or is it more of a mystery? Perhaps a sheet drawn over a face, a hospital door closing, a tombstone, a casket open but you have that twinge of fear which prevents you from peeking over the edge…

Whatever comes to mind, when you think of “funeral” or “death” the chances are good it is not a good or positive association.

What, then, is this about a “death positive” movement?

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The Death Positive Movement

OVERVIEW

The Death Positive movement encourages people to think and talk freely about death. This includes frank discussions about the process of dying, what happens to bodies after death, death rituals and traditions, and options for burial, funerals, and body disposition.

The main idea is that, when we talk openly and thoughtfully about what many consider a “taboo” topic, it will help alleviate the fear and anxiety surrounding death and enable consumers to make informed, satisfying, and environmentally conscientious choices.

This is a specific movement within a broader general reaction to the commercial, professionalized funeral industry that has come to dominate how death is handled in the United States and much of the Western world over the last 100 years or so.

Generally speaking, there is a broad grassroots movement within the funeral industry that emphasizes many of the following:

  • Family-centered funerals
  • Hands-on participation in the funeral, body preparation, and burial/cremation
  • “Green” and natural burial options
  • More affordable burial and cremation choices
  • Incorporation of meaningful rituals and ceremony
  • An acceptance of death and decay as part of the natural world

DISTINCTIVES

Specifically, the Death Positive movement is influenced by the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-prize winning 1973 work The Denial of Death. The term “death positive” was coined by author, YouTube personality, and mortician Caitlin Doughty, and the movement itself is largely centered around her work but draws from the broader stream.

Read my review of Caitlin Doughty’s popular book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Here are some of the core beliefs or “tenets” of the Death Positive movement:

  • Death has become professionalized and thus remote
  • Outsourcing the care for the dead has removed it from our thoughts
  • Commercialized Western culture emphasizes life rather than death
  • These trends do more harm than good
  • We can and should overcome this by talking and thinking about death in a constructive way
  • People should be involved – as much as they wish to be – in the care for their own dead
  • The laws that govern death and end-of-life care should ensure that the person’s wishes are honored

Those who identify with the Death Positive movement are many and varied. Some work at traditional funeral home chains while others are independent morticians; some work in hospice or palliative care while others are bloggers and writers.

MY TAKE ON THE DEATH POSITIVE MOVEMENT

Somewhat subjectively, the overall feel of the Death Positive movement involves youthful zeal, eco-friendly practices, social media, an interest in the traditions of many diverse cultures, and a fascination with all things medieval, macabre, and Gothic.

Of course not everyone has the same interests and styles, but this is the vibe I get when clicking around the various websites, YouTube channels, and social media profiles of the louder voices in the movement. It is what I would consider quirky-yet-normal interests for those whose profession involves working with the dead.

The outlook of the Death Positive movement is that it’s ok to think and talk about death in positive terms. This doesn’t necessarily mean happy. Rather, these are positives such as:

  • Learning. When we learn about death, the fear of the unknown gives way to a greater sense of peace that comes with knowledge and understanding.
  • Planning. When we plan for our own eventual death, we will not worry about it as much, or cause our family additional stress when we die.
  • Partaking. As we understand the dying process and our options, we can plan to include family and friends in the care and rituals so that they can partake in this final phase of our lives.
  • Caring. By which I mean, caring for the environment and our family’s finances. There are many options available which will help you leave this world in a more affordable and environmentally-friendly way.

There are many, many positives that can come from regarding death more openly and honestly. These are just a very few. As fears and anxieties decrease, your relationships with your family, friends, and the world will often increase. Your costs go down, your options go up. This is the “positive” in the Death Positive movement.

Other Similar Trends

There are several other trends that overlap with the Death Positive movement. These trends tend to share a passion to help people become more aware of their end-of-life options and enable them to plan their final days and funeral in a way that expresses their values and beliefs.

Other shared traits include a desire to talk more openly about death, dying, and funeral plans; concern for the environmental impact of the funeral industry; and a value for earthy, old-fashioned, and varied cultural traditions regarding death, grief, and body disposition.

DEATH DOULAS

The end of life doula movement has quite a bit of overlap with the Death Positive movement, but one of the first differences you will notice is in their name. Despite the catchy and popular term “death doulas,” they prefer to be called “end-of-life doulas.”

This belies a deeper distinction between the doula movement and the Death Positives: Where the Death Positive movement focuses on death, end-of-life doulas emphasize people. Again, before you go posting an angry comment, both trends have quite a bit of overlap. Many people are part of both. Doulas talk a-plenty about death, and those in the Death Positive movement want to help people.

But still, there are differences, and those differences, as far as I can tell, are that the Death Positive movement is a bit more philosophically zoned in on thinking through death and how our culture addresses (or fails to address) death, while the doula movement is about helping people one at a time through the dying process itself.

So, what is an end-of-life doula? Well, in much the same way that a birth doula is there to provide support, encouragement, and help to mothers bringing a child into the world, end-of-life doulas are there to provide support, encouragement, and help to the dying and their families as the dying person leaves the world.

Doulas, too, emphasize the importance of talking and thinking through death and the process of dying. This involves respecting the dying individual’s wishes first and foremost, but providing options and guidance as they consider where and how they die, who should be there, what their surrounding environment should be like, what rituals to observe, and how their body should be handled after death.

DEATH CAFES

Death Cafes are local meetups where people (who might never otherwise have even met) gather together, share coffee or a meal, and talk about death. According to the Death Cafe website, the goal is to have a group-directed discussion on the topic of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session. 

Sound intriguing? It is!

In Western culture, death is often a taboo subject. Even though it is as much a part of life as birth, death is the one thing we all have to look forward to. But it’s hard to live your life to the fullest if you fear death. So what better way to overcome your fear than to talk about it?

That’s where Death Cafes can help. Check their website to see if there is an upcoming meetup in your area, or plan your own.

THE CONVERSATION PROJECT

The Conversation Project is dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. Their stated goal is “to have every person’s wishes for end-of-life care expressed and respected.”

Many people arrive at death having never made their views, wishes, and preferences known. So they wind up dying in manner they would not have chosen, perhaps in a cold hospital room rather than at home surrounded by their loved ones. What is more, this sort of thing often leaves their beloved family and friends feeling guilty and uncertain, with the vague feeling that things should have been done differently.

To prevent this scenario, families need to talk about their end-of-life wishes beforehand. But the trouble is that this is the very thing that is hardest to do.

So The Conversation Project has made free conversation starter kits available for you to download. This will help you begin the conversation about death for yourself and your family members. The kit guides you through many options by asking things like, “What’s most important to you as you think about how you want to live at the end of your life?” and “Who do you want to talk to about these things?”

NATURAL BURIAL

“Going green” has hit the funeral industry in a big way. People are more concerned than ever about the environmental impact of death, and the industry is responding. There are eco-friendly caskets, biodegradable cremation urns, new methods of “cremation” like alkaline hydrolysis, and much more. These options have many advocates among the Death Positive crowd.

But perhaps the most specific “green” trend is natural burial. This is where a body is buried as naturally as possible, typically in a burial shroud or simple pine casket. The body is not embalmed, so no chemicals are used. Rather, the deceased’s loved ones help prepare the body and burial happens within just a few days of death. While this seems quick, the idea is that this is the natural process. Like in times past, the family is with their loved one at the end, washing and dressing the body for burial, and sometimes even digging the grave themselves. Many say there is a powerful sense of purpose and healing while they literally “work” through their grief.

If natural burial interests you, the best resource is The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier.

Additional resources for natural burial:

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Information about the death positive movement

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