As a teenager, I frequently walked to St. Stephen Cemetery after school to sit by my mom’s headstone. She died in a car accident when I was seven and I didn’t fully understand it enough to confront what that meant for me until adolescence.
That was the memory that jarred me when my husband sent me an announcement for a movie to be shown in Linden Grove Cemetery. He thought it might be fun. I didn’t like the idea of movie night in a place of mourning. It seemed flip. Disrespectful at the least. An exploitation of death at worst. I envisioned strangers using headstones as seats to keep their bottoms clean and dry while they munched popcorn and enjoyed themselves. It bothered me. I had questions. Luckily, I knew just who to ask.
Cole Imperi is not only a friend but a leader in the death community. She’s a Thanatologist, an expert on death and dying. She also happens to be the Vice President of the Board of Overseers of Historic Linden Grove Cemetery and Arboretum. Imperi helped me understand what I was missing.
Two things I learned right away. One: movies are shown on five acres of greenspace where there are no burials. Two: the cemetery is essentially full. Those two statements seem contradictory to me. How can you have five open acres but still be considered full? Easy. There’s an underwater spring in the greenspace area and any attempted burial would be submerged in water. That means plenty of respectful room for movies and other events.
The next thing Imperi helped me understand is this conundrum: when a cemetery can no longer perform burials, how does it afford the maintenance and management of a 22.5-acre graveyard that’s over 175 years old? This struggle isn’t unique to Linden Grove Cemetery. Many older cemeteries face this same predicament. Historic Linden Grove was consecrated in 1843. It’s hard to imagine them not being full.
Whose budget carries the line item for cemeteries? I assumed either it fell on the municipality or whichever religious institution founded it. The truth is, it depends. Some cemeteries, like St. Stephen where my mom is buried, are the responsibility of the Catholic Diocese. Linden Grove Cemetery, however, has a more complicated history of ownership and disrepair. These days the Board of Overseers manages and operates the cemetery with some funding from both the City of Covington and Kenton County. However, that funding does not cover everything.
The next assumption I had to confront was that cemeteries are a somber place of mourning for everyone. That’s simply not true. Linden Grove Cemetery has walking trails and Pokemon Gyms, and it hosts events like movie nights and even an upcoming car show. This is nothing new. Imperi is quick to say, “Cemeteries were our first parks.” Historically, before we had museums and public parks, we had cemeteries. People would take quiet walks among beautiful sculptures. Families would picnic on the lush lawns and there were even carriage races and hunting happening in cemeteries.
“Civic engagement and history connects in the cemetery,” says Imperi. Linden Grove Cemetery is so close to both St. Elizabeth Hospital and Kenton County Administration that it’s the place many go for their lunchtime walk on a nice day. The Pokemon activity even prompted a group of players to reach out to the cemetery and volunteer their time in appreciation. On the hottest days of summer, thanks to greenspace, the cemetery stays a whole 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding urban streets. This provides those without air conditioning respite from the heat in a beautiful park-like setting.
My initial perspective was an emotional one, born of fear that stemmed from traumatic childhood experience. My knee-jerk reaction was to internalize and judge. I’m glad I stopped and took the time to reach out to my friend Cole Imperi to learn more. Not only did it ease my pain, but it gave me a different outlook on cemetery experience. Our society likes to separate death from life as something of lore and gore, especially around Halloween time. But death is a part of life, not apart from life. We can honor that connection at our community’s cemeteries.
Everyone is at least a bit afraid of dying. Yet that fear is the driving force behind so much of life. Anything we achieve is because we know death will come: forming relationships, writing books, having children…these are all a result of our fear of an inevitable end.
Perhaps, with infinite time on Earth we’d put far less work into living. A healthy awareness of our own mortality in our daily lives, then, can be a good motivator. But when is it too much? The answer, especially for people like me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), is when it becomes an obsession.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered with OCD. Like many others, my intrusive thoughts revolve around death-adjacent topics. OCD presents diversely but, simply put, sufferers have intrusive thoughts that they cannot control. In an attempt to control those thoughts, they’ll perform compulsions.
My own death didn’t necessarily frighten me. For a child plagued by constant, violent images and compulsive behaviours, it seemed a bit too much like freedom to be scary. It’s no coincidence that, held prisoner by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, people with OCD are 10 times as likely to die by suicide.
Integrative psychotherapist and OCD specialist Craig Shirley of the OCD Treatment Centre tells me that my experience is common. He says that many people with OCD don’t fear death so much as they fear the uncertainty and the idea of “missing out on life”.
“People with OCD often want to be able to have complete certainty around particular things, which of course in this case they can never have,” Craig adds.
Twenty-six-year-old Zoe tells me that she developed OCD shortly after her grandpa died. “My family has always been my safety net, and my grandpa’s death woke me up to the fact that that could all slip away,” she explains. “I remember watching Mulan, the scene where the ghosts of her ancestors are fighting in the temple. I had a panic attack knowing that if my family died, they would not come back as quirky ghosts. They’d just be gone.”
Zoe adds that she became desperate for things to go back to how they were before, which led her to perform rituals to “heal” her family. “Because change, illness and death are inevitable, I became hysterical as the initial rituals became ‘less effective’. I revised them all the time, my routines becoming longer and more obvious to everyone around me. This only worsened after I saw my nana die a couple of years later.” This perceived responsibility to “help” everyone at the expense of your own mental health is common with OCD sufferers – we often believe that we’ve somehow been tasked with saving everyone through our rituals.
As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.
While Zoe has had therapy that’s brought her rituals under control, she still obsesses over death and health. “In the last five years I’ve had two friends die and in the aftermath I went crawling back to some of the rituals I performed as a kid, like a comfort blanket. I felt responsible and tried to redeem myself,” she says.
Similarly Suzi, 32, who is Catholic, told me that while death was a constant spectre for her, the idea of heaven placated her anxieties. After getting treatment for OCD, she found that in overcoming her obsessive thoughts and OCD-related rituals, she also lost the Catholic rituals she had always fallen back on.
With that loss of faith, Suzi says she also lost the “safety net” of heaven. “My OCD has always been centred around fears for my own wellbeing, and not trusting others with it. I was terrified of suffering, pain and death. I no longer knew what happened when people died, and I struggled with the concept of people not having a soul, of my conscious mind ceasing to exist when I died.” She adds that after being diagnosed with chronic illnesses, her fear has transformed. “Where once my fear of death was about what happens after people die, it’s now about not achieving the things I want to.
A sudden death scares me less than the knowledge that my life will end and I have no control over when. As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.
This fear hasn’t gone away. However, experiencing actual loss in my life has turned death from a haunting spectre into a very real, looming possibility. It has also made me aware of how badly I handle grief, which makes the possibility of dying scarier.
The more I enjoy something – a person’s company, a moment in time – the more aware I am that everything is temporary. We cannot control that inevitability and as an adult, I know that, so the way my obsessive thoughts manifest is different from the rituals I used to have. I try and fit as much as I can into my life, to the point of obsession. I record everything. If I have dinner with my grandad, I’ll note down the things he says afterward, unable to enjoy the present for fear of the future. Transience is scarier to me than death; the idea that anything we love can be ripped from this Earth at any moment is at once what drives and paralyses me. The rise of an insistent obsession seems gradual until the point where it takes over everything.
Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders.
The experience of having intrusive thoughts is difficult to explain to someone without OCD. Imagine you’re having a relaxing time, say a nice bath. Out of nowhere, you’re hit with a graphic image of a dead loved one. It’s upsetting, no matter how often you’ve experienced it. So to get rid of the thought, you might perform a compulsion, like counting everything you see. While my compulsions have gotten better with time, my obsessions have not. Whether it’s images or troubling thoughts, I feel like I have no control over what I think about.
Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders, which makes it difficult for sufferers to be honest. Confessing to a friend that you obsess over violent images against your will is daunting. It leaves sufferers feeling lonelier, which serves to exacerbate the disorder.
I spent the first few years of my life in the dark about my condition, thinking that I was “wrong”. In the media, OCD has typically been represented as an obsession with cleanliness. While that is sometimes the case, the ‘compulsions’ – the only visible part of OCD – are often the least harrowing. What goes on in a sufferer’s brain is for many the worst part of the disorder, and harder to represent.
OCD is a way of trying to control an uncontrollable world. Loss is the most unruly, devastating thing we can go through. Perhaps that’s why entire religions have organised around trying to make sense of it.
Of course, not everyone who’s afraid of death suffers from OCD. Craig tells me that the noticeable difference is about “how much time the OCD is taking up of someone’s life”.
He says that while many people without OCD want reassurance or ruminate over things, you know if you need to seek help when the symptoms are “getting in the way of everyday activities” or if you’re “becoming increasingly obsessed around a particular theme or worry”.
When you’re constantly assaulted by painful thoughts against your will, it might seem counterintuitive to seek them out. But with OCD, the most effective form of therapy is Exposure Response Prevention, wherein a sufferer confronts images and situations that they find uncomfortable and ignores the urge to perform compulsions.
Zoe tells me that a combination of therapy, talking to fellow sufferers and discussing death openly has made her rethink dying. This works for me, too.
The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning. That can take many forms: educating myself on my disorder but also educating myself on what I fear. When I was so scared of arson that I would go home to check if my house was on fire, I taught and reminded myself of the (slim) possibility of that ever being the case.
And so, to deal with my fear of death I started to learn more about death positivity. First, I did this through Caitlin Doughty, the mortician and YouTuber. After reading Doughty’s books, I learned that she got into the death positivity movement when she developed OCD after seeing a child die aged 8. Her fear of death, and her rituals surrounding it, forced her to confront her fear head-on. Now she has three books under her belt and an impressive career tackling “death denial”.
The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning.
From there, I read more and more about death, death rituals and the way other cultures embrace and accept death. I took practical steps, like thinking about what I want when I die. Sure, it’s morbid. But it makes me feel less as if I’m leaving this Earth against my will.
Now, I genuinely believe that my OCD was worsened by our culture of silence and denial around death. We often describe death in euphemistic terms – people “go to sleep”, they’re “in a better place”, etc.
Open conversation about death has been promoted by death acceptance advocates like Doughty’s collective Order of the Good Death, but the movement is still “alternative”. Being euphemistic only makes us deny death more, but it’s been proven that open, non-euphemistic conversation informs people and goes some way toward preparing them for the unimaginable. It makes us more able to handle grief.
The rise of death doulas, who coach people through dying, points to a more accepting attitude towards death. Death doula Shelby Krillin tells me that she frequently encounters people with OCD who have anxieties around death, and that it often stunts our ability to grieve. “It hinders deep conversations and connections with the ones we love who are dying, and the side effect is superficial conversations. When that happens, feelings, wishes and thoughts go unexpressed,” she tells me, adding that sitting with death is “true vulnerability.
She points to the Buddhist attitude of “embracing the groundlessness of life” as a pointer for starting to discuss death. “What we don’t know, we fear. Talking about death gives it three dimensions. You get to look at it from all angles. When people start truly grasping their own mortality, it makes our lives more vivid and wondrous
Like many anxious people, I fill in the blanks with the direst consequences imaginable, a process known as catastrophising. If my boyfriend is at the shop too long or my grandad doesn’t answer the phone, my brain tells me they’re dead. If my dog is sick, she’s dying. If I smell smoke, my house is on fire. Filling in the blanks with the truth and soothing myself with facts is reassuring.
Craig tells me that honesty is the best approach. “Accepting death isn’t necessarily about just finding a different way of looking at it, but also about accepting more deeply the things that we as human beings can and cannot control, and learning to accept that,” he reflects.
Accepting the things we cannot control is a necessary part of overcoming most manifestations of OCD. As death acceptance becomes less alternative, it’s my hope that we can all learn to talk openly about the inevitable end we all face and my belief that a culture of honesty might have helped me as an obsessive compulsive child.
A transplant to Los Angeles since 1988, Joseph Leahy was familiar with mortality. His family was in the funerary business. His family often took him to the cemetery as a child. “I’ve spent a lot of time around death and dying,” Leahy said. It was only when he moved out West, however, that he discovered the traditions of Día de los Muertos and identified with it. His enthusiasm for the celebration was so much so that his altars were often lauded in the early years of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s annual celebrations. Today, he continues to honor its sanctity with a yearly ritual commemorating his loved ones through a personal altar made at home and with the help of his daughter. His appreciation for the sacred tradition has also influenced his work in the HIV positive/AIDS communities. Apart from his yearly personal altar, Leahy has also helped these communities celebrate the ones they’ve loved and lost through meaningful remembrance.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.
It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.
A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.
Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.
The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.
Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”
However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.
In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.
But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.
To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.
Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.
Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.
“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.
In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.
In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.
“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”
Often, the worst kind of dinner party is one with a bunch of strangers: It’s hard to break the ice, and if small talk dies, you might end up sitting in stony silence. But the dinner I spent Sunday at Ballard’s Brimmer & Heeltap came preloaded with excited chatter.
This was all the more surprising given the preordained topic: Death. And before I’d even picked up my fork, one purple-haired seatmate, Elly, was already telling us from across the dinner table about the passing of her grandma.
Elly said her grandmother’s death was about as clean as they come. Her grandmother was comfortable talking about it with Elly, she had distributed her belongings long before it happened, and her family was close by at the time of her passing. She even had a “death doula” to assist her during the process. Grandma planned it all out.
“That’s a good death,” Amanda, another participant, said enthusiastically at the end of Elly’s story. Everyone else at the table nodded in agreement. About 40 of us had gathered for Death Over Dinner, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to reversing the pain and suffering associated with mortality.
Dying well means different things to different people. Maybe it’s dying for a good cause, or just dying when you’re still cognizant of your surroundings. But planning my funeral now, at age 23, is something I’d never considered — until I heard about death positivity.
Death positivity is a movement to get people comfortable talking about their eventual demise. Washington is a uniquely good place for it. You can go to one of Washington’s numerous death conventions or parties, such as one hosted by the People’s Memorial Association (PMA) in December. Many of its biggest supporters, like PMA’s Executive Director Nora Menkin or Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, make their home here. And most death-positive advocates know the statistic that although 80% of people want to die at home, only 20% actually do, so they say these conversations are a good way to learn the last wishes of the people you love and to express your own wishes before it’s too late.
For the environmentally inclined, Washington has long been on the cutting edge of what a green death could look like; death positivity is often linked with green options, which offer even more choices for people to consider when planning their deaths. This includes green funerals — basically, environmentally conscious funerals that can include everything from recomposition to water cremation to green burials (also known as natural burials), which allow the body to naturally decompose without preservatives. And a cemetery in Bellingham, Moles Farewell Tributes, became the first certified natural burial ground in an existing cemetery in the nation and the 12th cemetery certified overall by the Green Burials Council in January 2009.
In addition, “recomposition” (frequently called “human composting”) was legalized this year along with water cremation, adding to the list of environmentally conscious ways you can dispose of your body post-mortem. Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is basically cremation with hot, chemical-filled water instead of fire inside a pressurized vessel. (Water cremation of pets has been legal for much longer.)
Advocates say that the death positivity movement, combined with the legalization of more options, has moved forward conversations about it further than ever before.
“Death is having its moment right now, in a lot of ways,” says Brian Flowers, green burial coordinator at Moles Farewell Tributes. “So that education is happening at a pretty rapid pace.”
Michael Hebb, the founder of Death Over Dinner, is one of those advocates in Washington persuading people to talk with their loved ones about their mortality. While most of Hebb’s dinners happen independently among families (you can download a template to host your own from his website), the dinner I attended was one of the first around Seattle where participants had a chance to delve into death with strangers. For me, those strangers were Amanda and Elly, who are longtime friends, on my left, and a quieter, elderly couple, Sheryl and Bill, on my right. Each person was fairly comfortable talking about their deaths; Sheryl told the table that her last meal would involve potatoes, and Bill matter-of-factly said all he would want was a mango.
Hebb took a moment at the beginning of the dinner to walk participants, seated all around the restaurant, through the night’s proceedings: On each table was an envelope with five short questions about death, ranging from playful to serious. “What would you choose as your last meal?” “What are your wishes for your body after you die?”
But before we could answer, he brought our attention to the candles by our dinner plates.
“The first thing that happens at the table is we all take a moment and think about someone who has died, who had a powerful impact on our lives,” Hebb told us. “Really the first person that comes to mind.” Then, each participant was asked to give that person a short eulogy to their table before lighting the candle.
I knew mine in seconds. Hebb told us to hold on to that person, even if it made us uncomfortable. Vulnerability, he said, was key to making this work. So I held on.
* * *
Most people I talk to know what they want their funeral to look like. Some friends told me they wanted something cheap and easy. Others were quite specific: One roommate told me she wants her cremated ashes exploded in fireworks; another said she’d like her body detoxified and eaten up by mushrooms (she told me this while cooking mushroom risotto). An ex used to tell me he’d like his body shot out of a cannon. When I sent my sister the question over text, she replied seconds later: “Make me a tree for sure.”
My parents also had a response at the ready and told me they’d want a quick burial, no fancy stuff, the day after they die. In Guatemala, most funerals happen that way; there’s no weeklong preparation. When my Abuelito Quique passed away in Guatemala City, my dad flew out from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the night it happened and arrived just in time for the funeral services the following morning. Abuelito Quique’s funeral might qualify as “green” in the U.S. — or at least greener, since there’s no need to preserve the body through embalming or other chemicals.
Most Americans these days don’t pine for a cushioned casket in which to put their immaculately preserved corpse. In Washington, almost 80% choose cremation; the national average sits at about 50%, according to a 2017 study. Curiosity about greener funerals is on the rise, too. Adults over 40 interested in green funerals jumped nationally from 43% in 2010 to 64% in 2015, according to a Funeral and Memorial Information Council study.
“In the time that I’ve been doing this, it’s accelerated tremendously,” says Lucinda Herring, a green burial consultant and author of Reimagining Death. “I think that’s only going to grow, particularly with baby boomers who are taking care of their parents and themselves.”
But a greener death doesn’t mean an easier one. There are plenty of hoops to jump through before getting a body in the ground — especially for greener burials. Part of it is the lack of options. In Washington, only a handful of cemeteries allow green burials, some of which are certified by the Green Burial Council. Preplanning is often necessary in order to ensure that the deceased can even be taken to a green burial site.
“[Plots are] hard to get to so, numberwise, there’s probably enough to meet the demand right now, but they’re spread out geographically in a way that’s challenging for families,” Flowers says. At his location, he’s helped service families from cities as distant as Olympia or Boise, Idaho.
Until Herring helped perform her first green burial in the ’90s, she and her friends didn’t know that such a thing existed. A friend dying of breast cancer told her and others that she didn’t want her remains to go to a funeral director. She wanted a funeral at home. It was only after some research that Herring discovered it was possible and legal to care for the body immediately after death at home.
Still, Herring says the increase in public interest has made educating others a little easier. She also emphasizes the need to plan ahead.
“If you’re looking for a green burial plot, you should very much talk to cemeteries and ask if they provide green burial,” she says. “Because doing it at need if someone dies quickly is difficult.”
Some of those barriers to green burials are coming down. With the legalization of water cremation for humans this year, Washington bodies no longer have to be shipped to other states (typically Oregon) for the process. Flowers says Moles Farewell Tributes was one of only a dozen green burial sites when it opened its green cemetery in 2009.
“We’ve definitely seen a shift,” Flowers says. “Now, there’s over 300.”
Flowers and others say lack of information is the biggest barrier keeping green death options out of the mainstream. Spade, the founder of Recompose, says that when people are taken aback by the idea of composting their remains, she usually let’s let them mull over other options before pressing further.
“If you really think of the traditional method, [and] you think of embalming, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s intense also,’ ” she says, “So honestly, I usually just let it lie. I think people need their own time to come around to it.”
After telling her about the dinner, I asked what I should do if I ran into a person like that myself. She laughed a little. That shouldn’t be an issue, she says: “If you’re attending Death Over Dinner, you’re perhaps more comfortable than the average person.”
* * *
We began to light our candles at the dinner table, and when it was my turn, I returned to third grade. Anisha was one of my best friends, a small Muslim girl with chubby cheeks who shared my adolescent love of the Disney Channel show Kim Possible, whose brother we tormented by hiding his Pokemon cards under her bed, who I would talk to for hours on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, and who passed away from heart failure one night a couple years into our friendship.
My parents told me in our driveway, next to our minivan on a slightly humid, overcast afternoon. We talked about what it meant, and about God. The rest came in pieces: the news of her funeral, which happened quickly and privately, and then the realization that I would never see her again. When I visited her parents’ house the week of her death, Anisha’s mother told mine that she’d looked like she was only sleeping. There were cookies on the table that I didn’t eat. I remember wanting one but passing because everything felt so strange that it didn’t make sense to enjoy chocolate chips.
I’ve told myself this story many times. Retelling it now feels like reciting a mantra, one that’s simplified in its repetition, but has become as much a part of my life as my name or the soft scar on my knee. When I encountered my next death, I can’t say I was ready, exactly, but I knew who to talk to about it.
Finding comfort in talking about death takes practice. Hebb told me that he hadn’t always had that himself. Conversations about death in his family were nonexistent. Hebb’s dad was over 70 when he was born, making it likely he would pass before Hebb graduated from college, or even high school. He realizes that logic now but says he didn’t think much about it when he was a kid. When his father died, Hebb was 13, and his family didn’t know how to talk about it.
“It really devastated our family,” he says. “The majority of the time we’re faced with this conversation, it’s when something has gone horribly wrong or when it’s about to.”
Hebb says his father didn’t get to explain what he wanted from his death, and his family was left with a pain they didn’t know how to process. Just knowing how to talk could have made the situation much different.
The five other guests at my table expressed varying degrees of comfort with talking about the deaths of those close to them. I’d never told the story of Anisha to a group of strangers, and the words felt odd coming out of my mouth (it didn’t help that this happened before we got appetizers). But there was also peace in the process. Everyone listened. I listened in return. And by dessert, we were already planning what we wanted our funerals to look like in detail. I’ve always wanted a burial I can call “green,” whether that means turning my body into mulch or something else. But I also realized I was willing to bend if a cheaper but still-green option was easier.
At the end of the dinner, just before everyone got up to leave, the restaurant’s owner tapped a glass to get our attention. There were two birthdays to celebrate, she told us. A chocolate cake was carried out from the kitchen and everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Ending a dinner about death with a birthday might make sense to a death-positive person: Most advocates will tell you that life and death aren’t so far apart. Spade put it simply, saying she believes “that humans are part of nature, even if they’re destroying it.”
We go back to where we came from. All bodies decompose. Green burials — and the acceptance that comes with them — simply reinforce that whatever is left of us eventually gives life to something else. If that’s what I choose, I’ll be giving life long after my dying breath.
Before dying or almost dying, the conventional anecdote is that people see a flashback or a white light and have an out-of-body experience. But Barbara Olson, a retired social worker, saw darkness and Darth Vader as she started accepting her end. She had fallen out of a raft 20 years ago in Maine. “I kept having all these ‘Star Wars’ images of Darth Vader… Our guy on the raft [had] a ‘Star Wars’ name so that’s why I started thinking Darth Vader,” Olson said. “The other thing I kept thinking about is, I was with a man that I didn’t know that well … I was worried about my father and what he might think.”
These conversations arise at a death cafe, a gathering where people enjoy cake and tea while discussing death and mortality in a safe space. Death cafes can be held anywhere — a home, a coffee shop, and in this case, a cemetery. Inside the regal gothic revival-style Bigelow Chapel located on top of a hill at Mount Auburn Cemetery, a diverse gathering of strangers treated themselves to cupcakes and tea before settling down in chairs arranged in circles. Boxes of tissues lined the walls, should anyone need one.
Death cafes are modeled after 19th-century salons where people convened for intellectual discussions. Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, introduced the idea of death cafes in 2004 and Jon Underwood popularized them, hosting the first death cafe in his London home. Soon enough, death cafes were embraced across the world.
Death, famously called the “great equalizer” by journalist Mitch Albom, obviously sparks curiosity and questions. But many repress asking those questions out of fear. The topic is perceived as taboo and difficult to confront, even though death surrounds us.
“One of the eternal questions that we, as humans, have is about the meaning of life and part of that discussion stems from what happens after life, which is death,” said Bree Harvey, vice president of cemetery and visitor services at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Death is a daunting subject to grapple with, but the growth of the death positive movement and death cafes bring conversations about death to a more nuanced, collective grappling.
Far from a grim consortium of goths, death cafes attract people from all ages and walks of life. In my discussion group alone, there was a nonprofit worker, scientist, mortuary school student, yoga teacher, hospice volunteer manager, retired social worker, and Mount Auburn Cemetery employee. For all but one, it was their first time attending a death cafe. Before beginning our discussion, we were told ground rules to foster a comfortable and respectful environment: listen, speak your truth, share the air, respect, accept and expect, and self-care.
Olson said she attended the death cafe because she couldn’t talk about death with people in her life. “If you go by statistics, I’m three-quarters through my life and very aware there’s an end. I’ve seen people very scared in their life at the end, and people who have not been actually. I do think sort of normalizing and talking about it is very normal.”
Talking about death could be increasingly common with climate change. The thought of a mass extinction lurking around the corner brings great anxiety and urgency to make the most of our lives. “To have to envision that happening in my near or far future is the scariest part for me,” said Michelle Frasca, a mortuary school student, at the death cafe. Because of climate change, Frasca said she would rather not be immortal if given the choice. “I’m so much of a pessimist that I’m like, it’s going to be terrible, I’m going to have to watch people die, I’m going to have to watch the world die.”
Corinne Elicone, events and outreach coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery, may only be 25, but she’s already bought a plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Elicone had an experience where medical professionals did not respect her grandfather’s end-of-life wishes. “He wanted no life support, he didn’t want to get food or liquids. He was in the resuscitating area to be revived. And I had to go into that hospital room and tell the nurses to unplug his fluids,” Elicone said at the death cafe. “It made me feel like there’s nothing I can do when it comes down to it, people are going to do their daily tasks.”
However, not everyone gets to make their end-of-life plans. Just like there’s inequity in life, inequity persists in death. “There’s no grand conversation on access to a good death. Who gets to die well in this country? People with money. They get comfort and they have care and they have shelter and they have music and soft linen. And people who don’t have money don’t really have options,” said Lashanna Williams, a death doula and executive director at A Sacred Passing.
Death grounds and humbles us, in addition to helping us prioritize our lives, said Eric Redard, a hospice volunteer manager, at the death cafe. Daily life is filled to the brim with pressures: You work until you die and along the way, fear failure and inability to fulfill your dreams. Is contentment all we can ask for?
Olson, who recently moved to a new home, said that she felt a newfound peace that isn’t quite happiness, but it is enough. “I could just sit on the back porch and listen to the crickets all night. I don’t feel like I need to do anything … I started thinking, if I should die anytime between now and the next 20 years, which is quite likely to happen, I want to feel this way.”
The leaves are green and awaiting to burst into shades of gold, orange and red, but in a couple months, they will fall to the ground and decay. Like fall, a season that brings both renewal and decay, death is full of dualities: denial and acceptance, mourning and comfort, and loss and living with intention. Death cafes show us we don’t have to reckon with it alone.