So You’re Curious About the Death Positive Movement?

You’ve probably heard of the terms “body positive” or “sex positive” and already know that each movement calls for embracing what, in the past, social norms have forced people to be ashamed of. The “death positive” movement, though, is probably a different story.

In my Shakespeare class recently, during our discussion of Measure for Measure, someone pointed out that people used to talk about death much more frequently than today, whereas talking about sex was a taboo subject. Nowadays people love to talk about sex, or at least recognize it is a necessary topic of conversation, but rarely—if ever—do we talk casually about death. Joanna Ebenstein, an artist and a scholar who has studied different ways people deal with death affirms in her TEDTalk, “The way we look at death in America today is by far the exception rather than the rule.” Think about it. When is the last time you talked with your friends about what you’d like to happen with your body after you’ve died? Do you even know what your options are, besides standard burial or cremation?

This silence around the topic of death is what the death positive movement seeks to change.

Photo and article about the Trunyan cemetery by Paul Koudounaris

Grown organically out of discussions, art, and a gathering known as Death Salon, the death positive movement is written in a manifesto of sorts as part of a group called the Order of the Good Death. The Order was founded by Caitlin Doughty, an L.A.-based mortician who has devoted her career “to reform western funeral industry practices,” and, on an even broader scale, to help people face their fears of death. As the Order’s webpage succinctly—and eloquently—states:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

Perhaps facing these fears head on isn’t for everyone, but it is at least worthwhile to think about. On the other hand, for some people, being exposed to death positivity might be refreshing—even liberating.

Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, L.A.-based mortician, writer, and star of her own webseries “Ask a Mortician”

Personally, I came across the death positive movement accidentally, or perhaps inevitably. Ever since writing a term paper about the Kerameikos, the famous ancient Athenian cemetery, two years ago, I’ve been intensely fascinated by death, particularly how different cultures and people of different times take care of their dead. For a long time, though, I was unable to articulate—and was embarrassed by—my interest in death. Then, thanks to social media, I stumbled upon the Order of the Good Death. Here I found a group of people, from artists to academics to funeral industry professionals, who all were interested in talking and learning about death just like I was. I felt for the first time like my interest was valid, not creepy. And, I eagerly realized, there was so much more to learn.

Tombstones from the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Testaccio, Rome

To me, the most paradoxical part of our death phobic culture is our natural interest in death. People have been interpreting death and dying for as long as there have been people, so it’s bizarre to think we are now unable to embrace this preoccupation. To cite just one, Kenyon-specific example that demonstrates this latent fascination: one of the most popular classes offered is Royal Rhodes’s Meanings of Death in the Religious Studies Department. It is so popular, in fact, that in order to take the class you need to be put on a waiting list at least a year in advance. Furthermore, people tend to be fascinated by the culture surrounding death, even if they’re wary of approaching the subject head on. I have yet to hear of a person who doesn’t get a kick out of Victorian hair art, even if they do find it disturbing.

Interesting, too, is the dominating presence of women at the forefront of the death positive movement. In fact, there’s a whole blog, called Death & the Maiden, devoted to exploring this somewhat peculiar phenomenon. Sarah Troop, one of the co-founders of the site, along with Lucy Coleman Talbot, explains in an interview with Dazed the goal of their project: “It was not only important to us to amplify the voices of those actively creating the future of death, but also address the issues many women are facing who are confronted with the reality of 'bad deaths' such as femicide, victims of police brutality, reproductive rights and so much more.” And, sadly, it’s not just women—non-binary and queer people are often forced to come face to face with death because of their marginalized status in many areas. For women and other marginalized groups, then, participating in a movement that encourages them to reclaim their right to decide what happens to their bodies even after death is an act of resistance. Whatever you think of the death positive movement, you can’t deny that that is empowering.

Knowledge, too, is power. Since learning about the death positive movement and following the Order of the Good Death on Facebook and various supporters of the death positive movement on Instagram, I’ve been exposed to aspects of death culture that I’d never heard of or considered before. This discourse, reading and writing about death online, as well as the conversations they spur in person are essential for the death positive movement. Though it may seem paradoxical, through this awareness and engagement with death, it is possible to have better deaths and live better lives.

Death is natural and no matter how varied human experience may be, death is something that happens to everyone sooner or later—it is the most basic common denominator of not just being human, but of being alive. It seems absurd, then, that talking and wondering about death is no longer part of life.


Image Credit: Emily Stegner, 1, 2