Death, and the fact that we will all one day experience it, has long been one of the skeletons in our collective cultural closet. In today’s America, death is largely construed as something for professionals to handle behind closed doors; something that children must be protected from and adults try their hardest to ignore; something inherently tragic, terrifying and devoid of meaning. But is this the best or the only kind of relationship to have with mortality? A dedicated group of people are working to change these ideals by advocating for a more open and honest relationship with death. These individuals, who support candidly engaging with the inevitability of mortality and combating modern cultural anxieties around dying, refer to their movement as “death positivity.”
The impetus of the death positive movement is generally credited to mortician Caitlin Doughty, the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” series on Youtube and the writer of multiple bestselling books concerning mortality, including “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory” and “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death.” Doughty reports that she was inspired to seek death positivity by the rise of the sex-positive movement, in particular the unabashed interest of sex-positivity advocates in human sexuality and their own relationship to it.
Given the commonalities she saw between sex and death—both topics which are commonly labeled as taboo and yet are generally deeply intrinsic to the human experience—Doughty was surprised to find a dearth of online content commenting on personal relationships to death, and tweeted out an inquiry in April of 2013: “Why are there a zillion websites and references to being sex-positive and nothing for being death positive?” This tweet, and the support that it received, would become the birthplace of the death positive movement.
Doughty is also the founder of an organization called the Order of the Good Death, which describes themselves as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The death positive movement has become an integral part of the Order’s mission. Members and aspiring members of the Order can find eight key tenets of death positivity on the Order’s website, all starting with “I believe.” The first three of these tenets state: “I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society,” “I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship,” and “I believe that talking about and engaging with my inevitable death is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.”
One of the sections of the Order’s website is devoted to dismantling commonly held misconceptions about the mission of death positivity, such as the assumption that death positivity is a primarily aesthetic movement lacking in more serious, real-world implications. The site notes that death positivity advocates work to help institute better legislation surrounding the will of the dead and dying, such as legal protection of the right of terminally ill people to end their own lives in the manner of their own choosing.
The Order also wants to deconstruct the idea that their movement unreasonably glorifies death while glossing over “bad deaths” where the deceased was not able to pass on in their preferred manner.
“We encourage discussion on how to achieve the good death,” Doughty writes. “But a huge part of that discussion is the structural inequality that makes it more difficult for certain groups to obtain the death or funeral they might desire. … We should be allowing communities to define what a “good death” means to them, the very real barriers that exist to realizing a good death, and examining and dismantling those barriers.” Concerns that the Order aims to tackle include the negative environmental impacts of traditional methods of burial and the legal and financial hurdles surrounding funerals and death for immigrants and lower-income families.
Those interested in learning more about death positivity can check out Doughty’s YouTube channel or her books, read blog entries from the Order at orderofthegooddeath.com/blog, and listen to or read the transcripts for the Order’s podcast “Death in the Afternoon,” available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, and other podcast platforms. Officially, joining the Order of the Good Death is as simple as typing your name into a box on their website and clicking “enter” to pledge your support for the movement. In practice, getting behind their mission requires an introspective interest in mortality; a commitment to the right of others to have a good death; and a desire to fight for those rights, and in fighting for them, pursue a better life.