Our collective wisdom regarding Death generally holds that it’s a taboo subject. But in reality, dead bodies fascinate us, as our favorite television shows will attest. Murder mysteries and forensic pathology are among the highest rated and longest lasting entertainments in which we engage on a nightly basis! When given the opportunity, many of us want to peer into explorations on the topic of death, from the safe distance of our couches.
Our current conventional cultural orientation to death includes the narrative that following the Victorian era, we’ve repressed death to the point of it being hidden. Even worse, death has become so distant that it terrifies first-world humans and the best we can do is learn to manage an overpowering sense of dread.
While this may be true in many ways, Death is also, in some ways much more personal than it used to be. We do hear about and see images of death every day; the news is full of it and as I mentioned above, we embrace it in what we choose to watch in film and television; we can’t really avoid it. And we now have personal and political debates about abortion rights, about our rights to assisted dying. Suicide is now in the public conversation, as are the micro-deaths related to obesity and addiction and trauma. Incest is a taboo. Necrophilia is a taboo. Death doesn’t appear fall into the same category of avoidance as these examples; at least not anymore .
It is perhaps more accurate to say that we aren’t encouraged to discuss our own individual demise. Sharing our personal concerns or worries about dying, talking about what comes up for us around our own mortality when faced with the deaths of parents, spouses and friends is not a well-worn conversational pathway. In the Victorian era, when infant mortality rates were astronomical and death from preventable disease was front and center in the collective consciousness people lived with death all around them. It was an unavoidable topic. But even then, one has to wonder if there was permission for people to process their personal anxieties.
Currently, when it comes to the “everydayness” of death and dead bodies – we aren’t exposed in the same way our ancestors were. We see the screen images and hear the reports, but for most of us, Death is remote; over there, out there, them – not me. Even when our loved ones are dying, it is often in hospital or hospice, where we may be removed from their care, from the nitty gritty stench, sounds, sight and touch of death
Our vastly improved healthcare systems and successful public health campaigns have moved us beyond the health threats of the Victorian era as well. We live a great deal longer than we did even 60 to 70 years ago, and we outlive our 19th-century ancestors by decades. The word "sanitation" applies on so many levels to our greatly improved quality of life. But the death process may have been sanitized to the point that we've sanitized our connection to and conversation about the messy, conflicted, anxious, resistant inner narrative running in the back of our collective mind.
The blessing of our current cultural health and safety understandings and the increased longevity we've been afforded is the opportunity to contemplate death, to think about how we want to die, what kind of death we want, and what we want done with our bodies when we’re dead. We have the luxury now to actually debate and deliberate about assisted dying: the rights of the individual to decide how and when to die versus the counter argument that taking death into our own hands will essentially undermine the moral fabric of society. Death is much more political and personal than it has ever been.
It's true that for many, death is something to ignore. It is remarkable how many people (of all ages) will admit to never thinking about death. Have you ever thought about or talked about what you want done with your body after you die? If not, why?
But with the movement of the baby-boomers into the sunset years of their lives, this generation is leading a growing number of people, old and young alike, toward engagment with death in an active, open and productive, and importantly more personal manner. A person’s thoughts, ideas, desires, beliefs and choices can change, and often do regarding death. A growing cultural movement to deepen the conversation on a personal level is reflected in the resurgence of interest and participation in global Death Cafe's, Death Doula Trainings, Hospice Workshops and innumerable books being published on the topic in the past five years.
New forms of dead body disposal technology continue to appear, and this inevitably means people will choose future methods of final disposal that might seem shocking today. Water and potassium hydroxide-based tissue digestion systems, for example, is already operational, as are bio-composting and mushroom burial suits. The “green burial movement is fast evolving and maturing in response to our expanding, shared awareness of death as a part of life. The alternatives to embalming and burning will only increase in the coming years.
Perhaps its time to notice that attitudes and social mores about Death are changing. We can intentionally reframe or helpfully evolve the cultural narrative from an orientation to death as a socially repressed taboo subject, to an encouraging and supportive story about life; a story that presents death not as weird or macabre but rather integral to our lives, and an organic, magnificent, sacred, and fundamentally simple process.
Reassuring clients, friends and relatives that a natural part of living is to wonder about and think about death can be accomplished in many ways, perhaps most impactfully, through sharing our own thoughts, ideas, fears, beliefs, hopes and desires, relative to our end.
Experiment with talking about death. Tenderly and respectfully, ask questions, be curious and share your own contemplations and apprehensions with others. Perhaps you will discover, as I have, that the philosopher Spinoza was right: "discussing death is a meditation, not on dying, but on living life."