5 things you can do to join the Death Positivity movement and value life more

March 28 | Guest post by Nuri McBride
NV-160
You saw her wedding on Offbeat Bride, which featured this sign, now see her thoughts on death. (Photo by Georgiadis Photography

Let's just say this right now; you are going to die. Yes, you, will one day cease to be, and there is nothing more natural than that.

Dying is a fundamental part of life, if not the defining element of being alive. However, we live in a culture of extreme death denial. Our society promotes the idea that one should endeavor to be young and beautiful forever — any crack in that anti-ageing/striving for immortality regime is seen as a personal failure. This is compounded by the professionalization and isolation of death in society. That in turn, has added another layer of fear and anxiety about death…

People can routinely live well into adulthood without seeing a dead body. Heck, when was the last time you saw a funeral procession? Almost 7,000 people die a day in the United States, but, unless that person is a close relative, most likely you will never see them.

Don't get me wrong; I want people to live long and fulfilling lives, but denying our mortality will not help us achieve that. In fact, I think it hurts us. In a world promoting perpetual teenage-hood, it is incredibly easy to become static and apathetic.

Death denial teaches us to push away hard thoughts and conversations, until we have no choice but to talk about them. Facing your mortality, or losing a loved one, is hard enough as it is, we don't need to make it harder. There is a pink reaper in the room and not talking about him will not make him go away.

Despite this, there is a growing Death Positivity movement. Death Positivity is about coming to terms with death as a part of life, and creating an encouraging space for dialogue and exchange about mortality. Below are five things you can do to help cultivate Death Positivity. It can help with some of the heebeejeebees about death, and might just help you live a richer life…

1. It's okay to think about mortality

It is okay to be curious about death. It is also okay to be afraid of it. However, instead of pushing it away, give yourself permission when thoughts arise to explore how death affects you. This can manifest in many ways. Maybe you have an ill pet who isn't getting better. Maybe you are the sole provider for your family and wonder what will happen to them if you die. It is not morbid to take a few minutes, lean into fear, and examine some very real concerns. If you like meditation, there is a tradition of Buddhist death meditation that is very helpful in dealing with the initial anxiety.

I like to frame these thoughts with what I call Death Goals. I want to live to 98 and die in my sleep. I don't have control over all the factors of course, but now and then I check in and ask myself, am I living a life that might lead me to that end?

2. Talk with loved ones

Talk to your family and friends about your fears and concerns surrounding death. Make sure to tell them what you want regarding your end. Discuss with your partner how you will educate your kids about death, and be on the same page. It can be as simple as saying, "Hey, you know I want to be cremated when I die, right?" Having these talks long before something happens can be a comfort to both the dead (who shared their desires beforehand) and the survivors. You can't up-sell a widower a $7,000 bronze casket if the deceased made it abundantly clear she wanted a wood coffin.

3. Get it in writing

Advanced Health Directives, also called a Living Will or Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, is of particular importance for offbeat families that may not fit comfortably into legal definitions. I urge every adult to have one. It ensures that your health wishes are followed, and your body will be the responsibility of the person you choose. You don't need an attorney to write one; most states will have a fillable pdf online. It's as simple as filling out a form, signing, and getting it notarized.

4. Learning releases fear

Many of the fears I hear from people have to do with a lack of education. It's understandable; there are changing legal, social, and religious issues. The industry can seem unapproachable, and of course, the dead body. Death Positivity can't remove the existential crisis of death, but it can help with anxiety over, for instance, going to a funeral for the first time or understanding healthy mourning versus complicated grief. There are many resources online within the Death Postive community that can answer your questions and shed light on issues in a non-scary way. Remember the monster is always more frightening in the shadows.

5. Carpe the fuck out of this diem

There is a reason Memento Mori have been a theme in art through the centuries. Reminders of death were not meant to be creepy, but to remind you to live life to the fullest. You may die tomorrow, or in 90 years, you don't know. You have two choices, either be crippled by fear of all of the "what-ifs," or make the most of it. When we are reminded that time is precious, it becomes a lot harder to justify wasting it. When we recall our own humanity, it becomes difficult to strip away the humanity of others. Keep something around that serves as your Memento Mori. I have a ceramic skull by my door that reminds me to make today count.

As the saying goes, when Death finds you make sure it finds you alive.

How do YOU get past the fear and mental blocks and cultivate Death Positivity?

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  1. I've always found the inevitability of death very comforting, and my biggest challenge has been learning how to handle other people's death discomfort. I never understood why people act like talking about death is taboo or why it's "morbid" to have a will.

    I've never heard of Death Positivity as a movement though. How does this movement tackle the trickier questions revolving around when one dies? I'm watching my grandmothers' health deteriorate, and all I can think is, "Surely they should have died by now. Why are we keeping them alive to live in such pain and discomfort? Medicine has progressed too far if this is the quality of life we insist our elderly have."

    4 agree
    • That is a great question, Cassie. I think you might benefit from going to a Death Cafe, which is a group that organizes local meet-ups to talk about these very issues. You can see if there is one near you at http://www.deathcafe.com. Plus there's cake!

      With friends being negative about death, it helps me to remind myself that their behavior comes from a place of fear. Death is so scary to them they can't even talk about it hypothetically. Try to center yourself in compassion and tell them that death is natural and having concerns about death is natural. What isn't natural is entirely rejecting the reality of the human condition, but you want to let them know that when they are ready to have that conversation, you will be there for them. Then go to a Death Cafe or the Death Positive Reddit https://www.reddit.com/r/DeathPositive/ and talk with folks that are ready for that conversation.

      Medicine has been able to extend physical life by decades, but quality of life hasn't been as great of a focus. Death Positivity advocates for scientists to put a greater focus on quaily of life care in medicine and for doctors to support and empower terminally ill patients on end of life choices. I, nor anyone, can choose for you what your Good Death is, some people may not want to suffer, and others will want to prolong life at any cost. What Death Positivity wants to do is give you the resources to make informed choices for yourself.

      4 agree
    • I agree about the medical field. It's so sad that we (in the USA) force people to stay alive even when they have no quality of life left. And if a person's loved ones question it, the doctors act like they're killers! I hope this changes.

      3 agree
    • Not to mention the cost of end-of-life care. Heard a doctor once say that we could significantly affect the cost of our healthcare systems if we all died thirty days earlier. A HUGE amount of healthcare funds and resources are spent on people in their last year of life. Not only does this stress the system but it can leave families with enormous bills, often just so someone can live a few more weeks suffering in a bed. In my opinion, it's just because of what OP says: we're scared of death because we haven't thought about it, and we haven't communicated our wishes to our loved ones.

      4 agree
    • Hi, I wrote to you a few hours ago, but I had links to resources in the post and it's still awaiting moderation. Here is the post without the links but they are all easily googleable.

      That is a great question, Cassie. I think you might benefit from going to a Death Cafe, which is a group that organizes local meet-ups to talk about these very issues. You can see if there is one near you. Plus there's cake!

      With friends being negative about death, it helps me to remind myself that their behavior comes from a place of fear. Death is so scary to them they can't even talk about it hypothetically. Try to center yourself in compassion and tell them that death is natural and having concerns about death is natural. What isn't natural is entirely rejecting the reality of the human condition, but you want to let them know that when they are ready to have that conversation, you will be there for them. Then go to a Death Cafe or the Death Positive Reddit and talk with folks that are ready for that conversation.

      Medicine has been able to extend physical life by decades, but quality of life hasn't been as great of a focus. Death Positivity advocates for scientists to put a greater focus on quaily of life care in medicine and for doctors to support and empower terminally ill patients on end of life choices. I, nor anyone, can choose for you what your Good Death is, some people may not want to suffer, and others will want to prolong life at any cost. What Death Positivity wants to do is give you the resources to make informed choices for yourself.

      1 agrees
  2. I don't fear death; I dread it. Fear is reserved for the unknown, the what-ifs, the bogeyman that lurks in the dark. Death is inevitable. I am alive, but eventually, I will cease to be. I dread the fact that some day, I will die, and I will not live to see the future. When I learn about history, or read stories written by or about people who are long gone, I think about how much the world has changed and the things they never lived to see, and realize that someday, I will be those people, and I will never live to see the history of people in the future; I will be the quaint old-timey person who didn't know what was really happening, with my ancient ideas and ideals. It's not the same as fear of missing out…I KNOW I will miss out, and this makes me more sad than the fact that I will someday die. It also makes me want to LIVE more, to absorb as much of NOW, as much as my existence that I can possibly be part of.

    6 agree
    • One of the aspects that I like about the Buddhist meditations on death [Ps-I'm not Buddhist or pushing a belief system,I just find this one particularly helpful] is they address the concept of time and cleaving to time. A great source of unhappiness for people is feeling cheated from time they feel they are owed. That could be the time owed in a the scale of a lifetime (my life should be 80 years and if it's 60 I've been cheated) or that feeling of annoyance when you sit down to watch Netflix and get called away to do something you don't want to ( I was owed Netflix and chill!). Personally, I have found it very liberating to work on removing this feeling of ownership over time. The only claim to time I have is this razors edge of experience we call the present, everything else is me projecting hopes or fears.

      That may be a practice of interest to you if you find your dread distracting to your day to day life. But everyone approaches these things in a different way and if it's that little bit of doom that helps you live a full life and thrive then you do you sister.

      5 agree
  3. I don't know if this is valuable or applicable, but I wanted to mention that when my mum died last summer, she had asked for a "Green Burial" on the property. We had to jump through a lot of hoops to do it, but we managed to get confirmation while she was in End-of-Life care. Apart from purchasing a cardboard cremation casket from a funeral home, we did everything ourselves. We had many friends and family surrounding her at the end. A good friend helped us clean the body. We held the body at home "in state" overnight so that people could visit and offer prayers and offerings. She wad not embalmed or chemically treated in any way. When we got the casket, we traded the pieces for biodegradable rope and 8 of us, children, the partners, and one of her sisters placed the body in the casket. Though I had originally planned to rent a backhoe, if necessary, twenty people. 20 different people helped dig a grave of perfect size and legal depth, with shovels and borrowed pickaxes. We held the burial service ourselves, and people brought trees and flowers to plant on the site.
    Creating this death and this burial was very spiritual and cathartic for many of those involved. It allowed them to honor the dead and the living, and it allowed a physical, bare, honest way for folks to grieve. I strongly recommend taking a hands-on approach to end-of-lufe and burial care if that is available to you.

    13 agree
    • That is absolutely applicable and thank you so much for sharing your story. There are many people that don't even know that is an option for them or might be afraid to be so hands on because everything they have been told is that this needs to be handled by a professional. So much of the standard death industry takes us away from the interactive experience of death rituals, like shrouding and digging the grave that can be very cathartic for the family. Sadly in lots of places there is growing legislation that would make green burial harder and harder to do. Which makes sharing these stories so important.

      • At the moment, one of the hardest things to deal with its an absence of legislation! When we were trying to get cleared for our plan, even people on official capacity haf to struggle to find information to give us! We were well received, but there are very few laws on the subject in many places, and is hard to prove a negative, add it were. For tower following this thread, look up Green Burial if you're interested. There are a lot of resources and support online.

        2 agree
    • You're very welcome. If you'd like more resources just let me know here in the comments or you can reach me privately at livegirl at deathscent dot com

  4. It was great to see this! I thought for a moment this was Caitlyn from the youtube series Ask A Mortician!

    These are all great points and tips for looking into the vastness of death, our own mortalities and the fascinating rituals by all cultures surrounding death and dying. It sounds so morbid, but it's not. It can increase our respect for humanity when we realize, regardless of our differences, we all die. And a lot of us fear dying. End of story.

    Other great resources include:
    Order of the Good Death – http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com

    Youtube series Ask A Mortician – Caitlyn has some great videos on various death/dying/burial rituals, things you should know, random morbid tidbits and all packaged in a very hilarious videos.
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi5iiEyLwSLvlqnMi02u5gQ

    Thanks again for writing this piece.

    • Thank you for reading it 🙂 Caitlyn is indeed super awesome and I want her hair. Order of the Good Death, Death Salon, and Ask a Mortician are all fantastic. I'd also suggest checking out Nourishing Death, Death and the Maiden, The Chick and the Dead, Mourning Doula, Dead Social, Dying Matters, CAKE, Natural Death Center, Loon Cast, and Dr. Fitzharris' various projects, The Chirurgeon's Apprentice, Under the Knife, and Grave Matter. All are really great and very approachable also there is a lot of intersectionality, its a small group and everyone is awesome.
      Oh and my site Death, Scent, & the Live Girl, because I'm good at self-promotion 🙂

      2 agree
      • Thank you for so many more places to look at! Yay!

        And self-promotion is awesome!

        2 agree
  5. This is a really interesting topic. I don't fear death itself, and it doesn't squick me out. What DOES scare me, is getting old, fragile and ill, and having to rely on other people (I'm fiercely independent). Which is interesting, because all the females in my family died in their 80s and 90s, suddenly, with little frailty, so I have no evidence for the fact that I should be scared of that.

    I'm also intensely goal- and achievement-driven – so dying before I achieve my goals, is also a big fear of mine. Again, weird, since I always make new goals in my life, so OF COURSE I'm going to die in the middle of one of them! Because I don't want children, I get caught in this whirl of "my life has to have meant something", so I always wonder whether I've made enough of an impact on the world to have a "legacy" of sorts – not that I have to be well-known, but satisfied with my own impact, and those around me. If that makes sense.

    Because I'm a psychologist, I have good insight into how ridiculous and baseless these fears are, but it's interesting how things play on our psyche. I always try and remember a conversation I had with a friend after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was only 27 when he died, and we went out for dinner together a couple of months before he went. He asked me whether I regretted anything in my life, and I thought about it and said that I didn't – that I may have made mistakes I cringed about, but that those had made me the person I am today, which I like so I don't regret. He agreed and said that although he was young, he was fine with knowing he was about to die, because he had lived a "good life" – he had loved and had been loved, had spent his time doing things he had enjoyed, and lived according to his values. At the end of the day, that's all anyone can ask 🙂

    4 agree
  6. Any tips on helping others around us be more accepting?

    Personnally, I am quite lucky to simply take death as a part of life. Three seperate incidents in two years in which my life was *this close* to ending pushed me harder and faster than most into acceptance, I think. Plus, as a nurse, I have been around numerous bodies and grieving families.

    I faced real resistance though, when I forced (yes, forced) my boyfriend to accompany me as we got a will and protection mandate done. And I spooked most of my friends and family, getting a lot of awkward hand-twisting and eye-avoiding when I explained the reason I wanted to finally get married. (Because it was really important I did before I died, and I suddenly didn't feel time was a luxury I had.)

    How do you broach such a taboo subject in a way that is respectful to other's sensibilities yet still makes them think?

    • First off you get a gold star for having a will and a protection mandate, you, my friend, are awesome! This is a tough one but here are a few things that might be helpful:

      1. Most important, you are not weird for wanting this conversation so don't lose hope and don't let anyone make you feel unsure of how important these conversations are.
      2. If you get resistance when talking about death, try to deconstruct the resistance with your family member. If your partner says something like, "its so morbid to have to have a will" calmly address why it is important to you (it gives me piece of mind, it's responsible, I'm a grown ass woman that handles my business, I want to save you from making hard choices should the worst happen). Then ask why it's hard for him to talk about it. A lot of times it's a knee jerk reaction coming from a place of anxiety, and if you calmly and logically break it down and talk about it, the fear doesn't have any place to run to.
      3. Your family and friends don't have your professional experience and as you have had near misses in the last few years, keep in mind that they have almost lost you, and they may not be taking it as well as you think. Perhaps before you talk about death planning, it might help to have a conversation about how they processed your recent scares and work through any unresolved grief they may be dealing with.
      4. A pretty effective method for breaching the death talk is what I call The Talk and Tuck. You say, "look I know it's hard but it will be so much harder after something happens so let's set aside some time to chat about it. We will get all the stuff in order and then tuck it away and enjoy life". I think because they see an end point to the discussion and because you are reassuring them that you are not morbid it helps resistant family open up a bit.
      5. It also helps to find a soft opening that works for your audience. I have a friend that is a jewelry designer and my in with him was mentioning that there are companies that can take the carbon of your ashes and make you into a diamond. If I had started with estate planning his eyes would have glazed over.
      6. Be persistent, in that you are not going to give up on having this conversation, but recognize that they are on their journey too and they may need some time to think about things. Bring it up and if you're hitting a wall don't get into a fight, but a week or so later ask if they have thought any more about what you were talking about.
      7. Also it helps to have other places to go to talk about death outside of family. Death Cafe, Death Salon, Death Positive on Reddit are all great options. You can find other people dealing with the same issues and they can be a great support . It also helps to show friends and family, "look it's not just me"

      Those are just a few of my suggestions, but I'd love to hear what others might suggest as well. You might find these books helpful too:
      The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields
      Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler
      On Death & Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
      Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

      2 agree
  7. This is an interesting idea. I suffer from the fear of death so badly that I get anxiety attacks about it sometimes. I suddenly imagine the end of my life when I taking my last breath and I get a cold clammy fear wash over me. I'm not even 30. Obviously I can do nothing about dying, so accepting it is really the only healthy, same option.

    • It's absolutely ok to be frightened of death. Be patient and kind to yourself and remember that it's a journey. If you feel that your fear is affecting your life and isn't a now and then thing I would suggest talking with a counselor that can help with the anxiety. It may be helpful to approach Death Acceptance and Death Positivity as a theoretical academic exercise at first and not about your mortality, which is a big thing for anyone to grasp. If you are interested in art start with looking at Momento Mori in art or the artistry of stonework in cemeteries. Maybe you're interested in the environment and you can do some research around Green Burials and how they will help the Earth. I like perfume and I noticed how scent, especially in pre-industrial society, was used in funeral customs and that was my start. Get comfortable firstly with thinking about death hypothetically, then try to find an aspect of the culture of death that interests you and then slowly build up to those deeper existential questions. As a first step you might want to check out Ask a Mortician on Youtube or the podcast Loon Cast. Both are great and funny and not creepy. Consume a bit of Death Acceptance media and then think about how it makes you feel, maybe even right it down. You can always reach me at my blog if you'd like some more references or to tell me how it's going 🙂

  8. All of my grandparents were farmers in rural Nebraska. Three of them died when I was 7, 11, and 12, and I have fond memories of seeing their bodies in their homes in their own beds. (Beds that their spouse kept sleeping in after the burial, without being weirded out it seems).
    I liked the way the room felt, everyone quiet and solemn and the body so peaceful. We sang some hymns and I remember holding their hands each time and being amazed that they couldn't feel pain anymore. Seeing the whole family together was more comforting than any god or heaven talk.

    After the funeral, we always had potluck food and beer and even the kids were allowed a few sips 😉 After lives well-lived, it didn't feel like a sad event. I'm glad I had these positive experiences with death to offset the indescribably sad ones of having friends die young.

    2 agree

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