Death Positivity and Knowing You’re Going to Die

We’re all going to die.

I don’t mean that in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world way. It’s just fact. Death is the one thing we have in common with everyone–everything–in the world. The reality is we will all lose someone we love, if we haven’t already. It is inevitable, but it’s always the last thing we think about, or want to think about.

I think about death a lot. Every day. Call it a job hazard, call it an obsession. Death fascinates me. The ritual of death fascinates me. I spend a good deal of time reading about it, writing about it; I watch medical shows and collect antique medical equipment.

You might remember The Christmas Eve Incident and the post I wrote about “being goth.” I’d like to think I’m not into labels, but other people sure seem set on sticking me in a box with a big black sticker on the front. Well, the Incident repeated itself a few days ago. I was idly minding my own business, doing my job, when the same person made a comment about how “[I] probably enjoy crashing funerals.”

This popped into my YouTube feed about the same time.

There are few things that make me more uncomfortable than funerals. My grandmother was the first person in my life to die. I went to her Mass at the church, and ditched the burial to set up for the lunch. I couldn’t stand the thought of enduring more than that. When my grandfather died last year, he was cremated, so there was no viewing, no wake, just a memorial service at the cemetery in the freezing wind and rain.

Though it’s true that I love cemeteries, and have even had a small cemetery picnic, burying my dead is not fun. It hurts. And it should hurt. These are people who occupied a space in your life. Their absence should be felt, but I think, by and large, we’ve moved so far from the ritual of death that everything hurts so much worse.

Fact: I have seen two dead bodies in my 26 years of existence. One was my grandmother at her wake. The other was my next door neighbor, when my mother found her in the yard.

It used to be the norm to care for the dead, to wash and dress them and prepare them for burial. Families were involved in the entire process. Now, we call a coroner and an unmarked car carries the body away. A stranger embalms it, adds makeup to make it appear less like a corpse. We hide it in boxes or burn it and store the ashes in an urn, keeping inorganic material as a token but never really investing more in the death than that.

If we don’t talk about it, it goes away, slinks back into the dark corners, into the closet, under the bed. Except it doesn’t work like that. We have to face it. I’m not saying you have to keep a body in your home, but there’s something to be said for being death positive, for taking steps to understand what’s going to happen when our lungs stop expanding or our hearts stop beating.

The things I miss are things I’ve never experienced: I miss mourning jewelry. I miss the ritual of covering clocks and windows. I miss jazz funerals and sky burials (those things still happen, actually.) We can push death away and keep it locked up, but it’s still seeping through the cracks. Why not embrace it? Why not welcome it as the last step in living? Why not provide the good death instead of hiding?

The pain is part of it. That won’t go away. But I think understanding, reconnecting, will give us another vantage point.

I wish I’d thought to ask for locks of hair. I will now. I’ll keep them in a box, carefully curated. Hair, like cremated remains, is inorganic. It will not fade, or age, or turn to dust.  I want to stop being afraid because in all seriousness, death does not scare me. The idea of hurting scares me, the idea of seeing those I love in pain scares me, but death nothing to be feared.

No, I don’t “enjoy crashing funerals.” They’re rituals. They’re sacred. I would never defile anyone’s right to mourn or to feel loss just because I’m death-curious.

Death is nothing to be ashamed of. Death deserves to be respected, honored, and cherished. It’s something to be curious about and explore, not to keep tucked away like a secret. I’m delighted to know people like Caitlin Doughty, and The Order of the Good Death, are out there, encourage people to come to terms with mortality, especially their own.




Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Death Positivity and Knowing You’re Going to Die

  1. My mom chose to go on hospice, and I moved back home with her for a month. It was hardest, most surreal, best thing I’ve ever done. She actually only had one bad day and we mostly just talked or watched documentaries or binge watched TV shows when she was awake. After she died, I felt gutted, and wished we had some rituals or something around death. I talked about it to everyone, but only a few people got it.

  2. Anne Tedeton

    This is brilliant. I was lucky to have a professor teach a class centered on death in 19th century literature, and it was eye-opening. I feel we’ve lost touch, too, and that that’s partially why people fear it so much. And re: mourning jewelry–it’s gorgeous stuff, isn’t it? Victorian mourning fashion is fascinating stuff.

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