Why do healthcare experts, academics, & spiritual leaders welcome us to confront our collective fear of dying?
“Everything around dying is getting radically rethought, from making the experience more humane to mourning and funerals getting reimagined” notes the Global Wellness Institute in its 2019 wellness trends report.
Jessica Mitford in her 1963 funeral industry exposé “The American Way of Death” deliberately critiqued the exploitation of mourners and the commercialization of death. When we look back into history, relatives would often care for the deceased, hosting wakes, and interring their loved ones in local church cemeteries or on their own property. The dead themselves were treated with reverence, washed, and wrapped in shrouds. Although minimal efforts were put into preserving their bodies against decomposition and change of appearance, death was more integrated with life and the community. This all changed with the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65). The deaths of unprecedented numbers of soldiers, many of whom were far from home, led to the widespread implementation of new approaches to preserving the body using chemicals. First out of political utility, then it changed into sentiment.
In contrast to other cultures, Western societies tend to avoid conversations or contemplations around loss and death. We do not really understand the death and dying process. Changes in lifestyles have depersonalized death and made it an encroachment on life instead of part of life. This has left many people ill-equipped to deal with death when it touches their lives. Further depersonalization of death is evidenced in the care of the dying person often being removed from the family and placed in the hands of health care professionals or religious leaders.
The predicament that we currently face is that dying has become a luxury. Not only because of the final cost but also of attempts to tame death by prolonging life. This prolongation of life is, at times, at the expense of the quality of life, and patients lack the emotional and spiritual care previously afforded their predecessors. Although most people would prefer to die at home surrounded by loved ones, many pass in sterile and impersonal hospital rooms with a huge bill attached to their last will. And laws around dying support the industry’s best interest, not the care we could provide within our community.
The Death positive movement is on a rise with new ways of conversation, rituals of passage and grief support. Death doulas, death coaches and death cafes attract individuals interested in improving their relationship with death and expanding their capacity for living. By embracing impermanence and infinite nature they bring awareness to how death can help us create an intentional life. Junaid Nabi, MD, a physician, and medical journalist, observed that “we train vigorously on how to delay the onset of death and are judged on how well we do that, but many of us get little training on how to confront death”. What we need are tools to become better at caring for ourselves and one another. From dinners to parties and card games, it all contributes to opening ourselves. Silicon Valley’s mission to “overcome death” has defined death as a failure of sorts causing an inability to think especially through panic or fear. As much as we need longevity innovations, we likewise need to acknowledge death wellness evolving from a niche status and infiltrating mainstream medicine.
A new sense of transgressing the constraints of physical space is offered by digital communities, which provide a sphere with seemingly no limitation in the user’s desires. Legacy projects offer the dying an ability to communicate their will and essence. Global media creates historically unprecedented opportunities to establish some form of intimate relations between people regardless of their physical location. The digital world arrives in this situation as a relatively stable unity on which one can rest, find a sense of security and a sense of value, and most importantly connect with the storytelling of our ancestors. Even when your physical body is not around there is a possibility of connection beyond this mortal coil.
Sources: 1. https://www.globalwellnesssummit.com/2019-global-wellness-trends/dying-well/2. https://www.fastcompany.com/90337388/i-refuse-to-have-a-terrible-death-the-rise-of-the-death-wellness-movement3. https://www.wellandgood.com/death-positivity-movement/ 4. https://www.chatelaine.com/health/death-wellness-doulas/5. https://drprem.com/wellness/dying-well-gaining-pace-in-global-wellness-trend/ 6. https://kinkaraco.com/pages/history7. https://www.earth.com/news/body-embalming-civil-war/