The Death Positive Movement Explained

The Death Positive Movement believes death could change your life. Advocates recommend thinking about it, talking about it, and planning on it. To the typical modern person, this sounds unnerving, but the movement is here to help.

Key takeaways:
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    Modern Western culture avoids death and is fixated on eternal youth.
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    Studies show death avoidance increases death anxiety and end-of-life stress.
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    The Death Positive Movement started in 2011 to help people talk about death and face it as a normal life event.
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    Becoming death positive means to speak openly about death.
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    There are many helpful tools and practical ways to start the conversation about death.

Americans are growing frustrated with the way the healthcare industry avoids death and treats it as a problem to solve. But most Americans ignore death, too, making it difficult to address the culture’s death avoidance. In 2011, the Death Positive Movement emerged to help the masses face and talk about end-of-life issues.

The growing signs of frustration

To quote the New York Times, as the global population ages, “death has a bright future.” Between now and 2050, the population of people aged 80 and over will triple globally, many of those without children.

Aging baby boomers watch death loom and seek ways to make their final years meaningful. More and more, they question their doctor’s endless offers of another medical procedure and lonely years spent in nursing homes.

The growing signs of frustration are vivid.

80% of people, mostly the elderly, aren’t dying where they want to: at home. Instead, 60% die in busy hospitals and 20% die in nursing homes.

Medical professionals increasingly fume about their industry’s endless life-saving measures. More doctors are rejecting the idea that a patient’s death is always a medical failure.

When you also consider the monetary cost of dying, the distress of COVID-19 patients dying alone, and the modern fixation with eternal youth, it’s no wonder a counter movement was born.

Death can’t be ignored. And that’s where the Death Positive Movement comes in.

What is the Death Positive Movement?

Surprisingly, it was a mortician who started the movement. Caitlyn Doughty was preparing dead bodies for funerals and burials in 2011 when she noticed the weight of the financial and emotional burden on families. She grew disillusioned with the funeral industry’s value of profit over innovation to ease families’ burdens.

Seeing body and burial preparation handled by professionals instead of loved ones inspired her to change the trend.

Gathering like-minded people together, she started Ask a Mortician, an informative and humorous video series tackling death questions and issues with a gothic flair.

The community grew into The Order of the Good Death, which spawned the Death Positive Movement, now an international cause to inspire people to talk about death. They encourage followers to break the silence “through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.”

“People who are death positive believe that it is not morbid or taboo to speak openly about death,” according to the movement’s website. “They see honest conversations about death and dying as the cornerstone of a healthy society.”

What the Death Positive Movement Is not

Being death positive does not mean denying the grief, sadness, and loss in death. It does not mean hiding behind a superficial cheery attitude about your loved one’s terminal illness. Nor does it mean being giddy about your own eventual death. It also doesn’t demand you to become a gothic lover of all things dark.

It simply means being willing to think and talk “about death in an open, factual, and compassionate manner,” according to the movement. 

What science says about death positivity

"Death anxiety is most problematic when we repress it," said psychologist Sheldon Solomon in an interview with Vice News. "When we bury it under the psychological bushes, it doesn't stay there. Our research has shown it manifests in a variety of unfortunate ways."

Palliative care expert and author of The Palliative Provocateur, Dr. Rebecca Gagne-Henderson argues that frank discussions are key for terminally ill patients to see their situation as understandable, manageable, and meaningful, known as a sense of coherence.

Dr. Gagne-Henderson's research shows that seriously ill patients with a sense of coherence are more likely to feel peaceful in the face of death. Those without it struggled tragically at the end of their life, because they lacked "the proper preparation to recognize what the future holds."

Honest talks about death and health conditions help individuals and their loved ones face death with meaning and comfort.

How to be death positive

There are a surprising number of death positivity tools created in the wake – no pun intended – of the Death Positive Movement.

The Conversation Project

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement started the Conversation Project to help people to “talk about your care through the end-of-life.” Their 12-page printable Conversation Starter Guide walks readers and their loved ones through four simple steps:

  1. Think about what matters to you
  2. Plan your talk
  3. Start talking
  4. Keep talking

Listen to stories

To ease into death positivity, watch and listen to YouTube stories from the dying and their caregivers, like death doula Alua Arthur. Or volunteer at your local hospice to visit patients who love to talk about their lives and end-of-life journey.

Talk to a death doula

As the Death Positive Movement grows, so does the number of death doulas. Also called end-of-life doulas, they are trained to help anyone of any age talk about and plan for death, facing such tasks as advanced directives, living wills, and health proxies. They are also experts in caring for the dying in their last days.

Create death reminders and discussions

Ancient Bhutanese believed one must ponder death five times a day to be happy. Even today, the Bhutanese culture embraces death as normal. Their icons and rituals constantly remind them of the certainty of death, freeing them to talk easily about it, even with children.

You can create a similar culture in your own life. Consider posting quotes and images in your home as reminders that you won’t live forever. Your cell phone can become a daily reminder, too, by setting an alarm saying, “Remember, someday you’ll die.”

Take a brave step and invite a friend to talk about life and death over coffee. You can discuss what preparations you’ve made or are scared to make, how to talk with your children and family, your worries about losing a loved one, and any experiences you’ve had with death.

Participate in burial preparation

There is no rule demanding only professionals – working behind closed doors – care for the dead. Loved ones can, too. It may sound morbid and overwhelming, but caring for a loved one’s body has comforted mourners around the world for centuries, as Doughty found in her world travels. Don't be afraid to consider the idea.

Start the conversation

Palliative care physician, Dr. Timothy Ihrig said, “This conversation today is not about dying. It is about living. Living based on our values, what we find sacred, and how we want to write the chapters of our lives...What we know, what we have proven is that this conversation needs to happen today...What is at stake is our lives today and the lives of us as we get older and the lives of our children and our grandchildren.”

The Death Positive Movement, with its quirky gothic style, hopes to free individuals and modern Western culture from death avoidance. Thought leaders within the movement say it’s okay to have death anxiety and fear. The goal isn’t to dismiss tough emotions sparked by the subject. The goal is to face them in whatever way you can.

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