Every culture throughout history has had their own unique way of dealing with death. For many Americans, we’ve had a complicated relationship with it — often treating it as taboo.
But is that all coming to an end?
A Quick History of Death in the West
Our ancestors in 1800s America had a closer relationship with death, as it was much more common. Funerals were held at home and loved ones were buried in the family’s backyard.
Somewhere along the way, death became a taboo topic — something we no longer like to talk about. We treat death as a challenge or as a form of defeat, rather than something that’s natural, and ultimately inevitable.
Lawrence Samuel, author and founder of Boomers 3.0, wrote in Psychology Today that the reason we tend to avoid talking about death is because it conflicts with our American values of youth, strength, and overcoming challenges. He also cites factors such as the World Wars, the advent of modern medicine, and the decline of religion as reasons we no longer talk about death openly.
Samuel said that “The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly ‘un-American’ experiences… Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation.”
It’s no secret many of us avoid discussing death. It’s an uncomfortable topic. But experts believe avoiding talking about death causes more harm than good. For example:
- By not talking about death, many are unprepared when it comes time to dealing with death. Up to 80% of people don’t have their affairs in order when they die. This puts extra stress on family and friends to sort everything out.
- We are often left with unresolved emotions of grief. By avoiding talking about death with a loved one, we deny the chance to talk about our thoughts and feelings, and even our fears with each other.
- Our rituals leave us feeling incomplete and unsatisfied. One study on Baby Boomers found that 48% of families left feeling unsatisfied with their funeral service. Perhaps it has to do with waiting until the last minute to talk about death. If families took the time to talk about what they wanted in a memorial service while their loved ones are still here, they can share ideas on how to create a more meaningful service.
The good news is that many experts believe the days of death as a taboo topic are behind us.
How It’s Slowly Changing
We are entering a “death positive” era. Discussions about death are no longer avoided or discouraged. We’re starting to see more ways in which people are willing to open up and challenge our old traditions.
Here are a few examples:
Death Cafés — A death café is a simple idea. People get together to eat, drink, and talk about dying. The Death Café movement helps organize more than 4,000 death cafés across the world “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
The Death Dinner Party — Like a death café, the Dinner Party movement is designed to bring young people together to talk about death. The official Dinner Party focuses on those who are grieving and helps them create new traditions after a loss. The group’s official statement is “To transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement.”
Social Media — Social media has made it easier for people to connect and grieve together. People can access online support groups, find valuable grief resources, and use social media as a place to share a loved one’s story and memories with others. Even our obituaries have gone online and have become a social place for mourning.
The Atlantic, in an article titled How Social Media is Changing the Way We Approach Death, wrote that social media has helped us become more comfortable with talking about death in our everyday life and also helps those with terminal illness share their experience and find support.
Death Positive Groups — The recent surge in death positivity can be linked to the growing influences of groups like the Order of the Good Death and the Death Salon. These groups are advocates for making death a bigger — and more accepted — aspect of life.
These groups believe that we shouldn’t fear death and that we should embrace things like natural burials and families playing a more involved role in the funeral process.
Video Games — Game artists like Gabby DaRienzo want to use video games to help us better understand and cope with our mortality. Her latest project, A Mortician’s Tale, puts the player in the role of the funeral director where players have to complete the everyday tasks of a funeral director as well as memorialize the life stories of the deceased characters in the game.
Attending Our Own Funerals — There are other organizations — such as the Hereafter Institute — that want to make us think about our mortality by attending our own “staged funerals.” These faux funerals are designed to inspire reflection and conversation about how we’d like to be remembered after we die.
What are your thoughts on the death positivity movement? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!