- As the pandemic has ravaged the globe, death, typically a taboo topic of conversation in America, has become inescapable.
- Death was long seen as a major part of cultural life, but with the advent of modern medicine, “we’ve kind of lost our familiarity with death,” says Anita Hannig, an associate anthropology professor at Brandeis University.
- In recent years, there have been movements dedicated to removing some of the stigma around death, and the pandemic may speed up this shift.
- Practitioners of death cafés, living funerals, and advance care planning say they have seen an uptick in interest.
- As cases continue to rise yet again, the pandemic may force a change in our relationship with death.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On a recent Sunday evening, I logged onto Zoom to imagine my own death.
“To die takes great courage, even to fake-die,” said Columbus, Ohio-based death doula Donna Baker. Along with three other people, I was attending a virtual living funeral ceremony – a guided meditation that asks participants to visualise their own deaths. We stared back at her from our respective couches, desks, and bedroom floors, our “memorials” of photos and mementos beside us. My last-minute collection included only a family photo and an aggressively floral-scented candle.
Hosted by Steady Waves End of Life Services, the ceremony was one of hundreds of events in the slate of the Reimagine festival, a two-month virtual celebration of “embracing life, facing death, and loving fully in the face of COVID-19.”
As the pandemic has ravaged the globe, death, typically a taboo topic of conversation in America, has become inescapable
The failure of government, both state and federal, to adequately respond to the virus has pushed the specter of death to the forefront, especially for Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, who have been disproportionately impacted by it. The national death toll has topped more than 130,000, and the end – a whisper of which emerged as cities like New York and Seattle fought back the tide of rising cases – seems impossibly distant as case numbers surge once again.
Over the past few months, the coronavirus has changed the way we mourn, restricting attendees at funerals or pushing them to Zoom. Simultaneously, it’s sparking conversations about death among the living. Death cafés, discussion groups that explore mortality, have seen increased interest since the start of the pandemic; advance care planning has too, as the severity of the virus forces people to consider what would happen if they were so sick they couldn’t communicate their wishes for treatment.
“In the death community, we’ve been having this weird thing happen where all of a sudden our services and topics of conversation have become extremely relevant to people,” Emily Cross, a death doula – a nonmedical caregiver for the dying and their families – who founded Steady Waves in 2017, told Insider. “We’re trying to subtly say ‘Hey, we’re here and we’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time and we can help you.'”
Over the course of our 90-minute living funeral, we stared at the photos of ourselves as we imagined our faces vanishing from the earth forever. We wrote our last wishes and final goodbyes to loved ones, and read them aloud to each other. Two of us cried. Then, Baker guided us through a meditation, in which we were asked to imagine the gradual shutdown of our bodies. Brian Eno played softly in the background.
Afterwards, I felt quieted, my mind calmer and body more relaxed than when I’d started, though I was disappointed by my extremely trite “final words,” which included a reminder to my still-living loved ones to “celebrate life.“ Yet the prospect of my own death still felt difficult to grasp.
For the majority of American history, death was an inextricable part of cultural life
“We’ve kind of lost our familiarity with death,” Anita Hannig, an associate anthropology professor at Brandeis University who studies death and dying, told Insider. Death has come under the purview of medicine, viewed as a medical emergency that “we can maybe save somebody from,” instead of a natural part of the human experience, she added.
According to Hannig, up until the 20th century, it was common for families to take an active role in preparing bodies for burial. In Victorian-era homes, the living room doubled as a funeral parlor. The Civil War popularised embalming so that soldiers’ bodies could be shipped home for burials, beginning the professionalization of the death industry.
Throughout the late 20th century, the number of Americans dying in hospitals swelled, particularly with the development of critical care technology in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. By the 1970s, two-thirds of Americans were dying in hospitals.
But this trend is reversing. Last year, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that more Americans are dying at home than in hospitals for the first time in half a century, fuelled by wider availability of hospice care, and a growing “death positive” cultural movement, which hopes to remove some of the stigma around death.
Practitioners of death cafés and living funerals have seen an uptick in demand
Hannig wonders if the horrors of COVID-19 could help expedite this cultural shift. “I think a lot of people are realising they don’t have the tools to really engage in a healthy way with death because it has been so pushed to the outskirts of our collective consciousness,” she said. “It’s almost as if the pandemic is pushing our nose into the fact of our mortality.”
Emily Cross, the death doula, began hosting living funeral ceremonies in 2018, after seeing a documentary about the practice in South Korea, where it’s an increasingly popular way to help people appreciate their lives in a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In Japan in the 1990s, celebrities helped promote the practice known as siesenzo, or “funeral while alive,” by televising their own ceremonies.
Cross’s living funerals focus on “an appreciation of life, starting a new chapter and letting the old self die,” and use a shroud to cover participants, instead of asking them to get into a coffin. Before the pandemic, she offered private and group living funeral ceremonies at rented yoga studios in Austin, Texas, and has trained 30 practitioners who host ceremonies all over the world.
Cross moved the living funeral ceremonies online in April, coordinating with a small group of her practitioners to host a larger audience. “The barriers to entry are fewer, because people can stay in their own space, and have control over their own environment,” she said.
Daniel Bergfalk, a 36-year-old Minnesota mail carrier, recently attended his first living funeral session with Cross via Zoom. For Bergfalk, the pandemic provided a kind of “catalyst” to finally participate in the ceremony. “When the pandemic started, I started thinking about life insurance, and dying, in just a very matter-of-fact way,” he said. “But I think the biggest catalyst was probably that they made it virtual.” The experience, he said, has helped him “throw myself into things I enjoy.”
Brooklyn’s famed Green-Wood Cemetery, the final resting place of celebrities like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein, has seen increased attendance since moving its monthly Death Cafés online, said Harry Weil, the cemetery’s director of programs and special events.
Instead of breaking into small groups for free flowing conversations about death in the cemetery’s gothic chapel, the 20-60 participants now move into Zoom breakout rooms. The pandemic, says Weil, has given these conversations “a little more direction.”
“Especially because you’re in a room with strangers, that’s the only thing that’s connecting us right now,” he said. “We have social media, and email, and the news, but there aren’t many outlets for productive conversations about COVID, where people feel comfortable sharing their stress and anxiety. Death Cafés provide, I think, an outlet for those deeper conversations.”
The Death Café movement began in the U.K. in 2011, when Londoner Jon Underwood first gathered a group for a casual discussion about mortality over tea and cake. It’s since spread to 72 countries. According to Megan Mooney, who runs the organisation’s social media and a meetup in St. Joseph, Missouri, the pandemic has allowed hosts to facilitate more cafés, thanks to the flexibility of the internet.
“I do think the demand has gone up,” she told Insider. “I had a lot of people reaching out to me, especially in the beginning, wanting to know how they could host a café to help their community.” Citing the work of Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Denial of Death,” Mooney attributes some of the coronavirus’s more benign societal impacts to anxiety about death.
“People are going out to grab toilet paper because they’re afraid they’re going to die – it’s about control, because they’re afraid of death,” she said.
Interest in advance care planning is also being influenced by COVID-19
Lantern, a digital start-up that offers free end-of-life wishes questionnaires and checklists of steps to take after the death of a loved one, saw 61% growth from mid-March to mid-April, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Garrick Colwell, a co-founder of Kitchen Table Conversations, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that offers advance care planning and grief education workshops sponsored by AARP, said he’s responding to the current demand for information with free weekly workshops focused on COVID-19. “When you’re intubated, of course, you can’t speak for yourself. So it’s at the forefront of everyone’s attention that, ‘I need to make sure that my wishes are clearly defined and understood. Because I might not be able to speak for myself.'”
Anita Hannig is careful to point out the pre-existing momentum of the death literacy and wellness movement spearheaded by figures like Caitlin Doughty, whose popular “Ask a Mortician” web series has been running since 2011, and organisations like Death Over Dinner, a nonprofit that organizes meals to help participants discuss their own mortality, spurring more than 200,000 dinners over the last seven years.
“I really, really think we’re on the cusp of a shifting societal awareness,” she said. “And I think the two generations spearheading this are Baby Boomers, who want more options for themselves, and Millennials,” with their tendency to question and disrupt entrenched systems.
Months into the pandemic with cases on the rise, this will likely be our reality for some time – and with it, a slew of changes
As the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has forced a reckoning with nearly every aspect of American society, from how we work and socialise to how we spend money and receive healthcare, it may well force a change in our relationship with death.
Several months into this new reality, “I do think more people are thinking about advance directives now and the reality of their own mortality,” Hannig wrote in a follow-up email. While the pandemic’s social distancing requirements have radically altered the way people mourn, this moment has also pushed people to grapple with death in ways they might never have otherwise.
For my part, the living funeral didn’t feel morbid, or dramatic. The ceremony offered a quiet space to reflect on my life, and be moved by others’. Perhaps death could once again be accepted as an inevitable part of life, that, like birth, is socially acceptable to openly discuss and plan for. While the pandemic still rages across the country, we don’t have much of a choice. As Death Café’s Mooney put it: “Daily life is now filled with some form of loss.”
Lauren Vespoli is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who focuses on culture and history. You can find her on Twitter here.
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