On being death positive

Driving home from the dentist this week, my son initiated a conversation about final disposition. Well, actually, he initiated a conversation about mummification and Ancient Egypt, but I took the opportunity to ask him whether he’d prefer to be buried or cremated when he dies.

“Buried”, he said.

“In a coffin or in a shroud?”

“What’s a shroud?”

“A big sheet people sometimes get buried in.”

“I don’t want either, I just want it to be me.”

“Naked?”

“No! Just wearing my clothes. I don’t want the ants to see my wee-wee.”

Then we seamlessly went from my son’s dead body decomposing underground to the two flavours of Goldfish crackers his father had packed in his lunch that day (Sour Cream & Onion and Xtreme Cheddar).

Having casual, curiosity-based conversations about death is a death positive practice. The term “death positive” was coined by Caitlin Doughty, a US-based mortician and author. She founded The Order of the Good Death to promote the death positive movement. You can read the movement’s eight guiding principles here. Essentially, death positivity is about bringing death out from behind closed doors and challenging the cultural censorship that wants to keep death out of polite conversation. It’s about recognizing that hushed tones and euphemisms (“passed away” or “lost” in place of “died”) do not alter the facts of dying but they do alienate us from this natural and inevitable part of life.

Since beginning my studies in community deathcare I’ve had the most fascinating conversations about death with friends and family. I now regularly talk about death with my parents. Most recently I’ve begun taking notes whenever we discuss ideas for my parents’ funerals and final disposition. Because my parents are healthy and active septuagenarians who expect to live for many more years, the mood of these conversations is light. We joke and laugh and let ourselves imagine possibilities. In this process, the most tender little details emerge. My father, for example, wants to be celebrated at the rugby club with an open bar, country music, and for everyone to dance with my mother. Until last year, I didn’t know any of this. I hadn’t asked.

Being death positive is a mature and responsible approach to death. It’s recognizing that talking about death won’t kill you, and not talking about death won’t make dying any easier (in fact, the opposite). It’s having the hard conversations now, before they’re really hard. It’s about bringing death out of the shadows and into the light so we can get a good look at what lies ahead.

Image © 2019 Erin Bidlake

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