If I were to rank all of my fears, death — my own, and that of the people I love — would definitely be at the top of my list. It’s a pretty universal source of anxiety, whether we voice it or not. We cling to this fear, even if it won’t change the reality that all of us will die, eventually. The death positivity movement, however — which aims to shift this perception by encouraging a larger dialogue about death — is steadily growing.
Our anxiety surrounding death stems from how we tend to distance ourselves from the topic, explains Katherine Kortes-Miller, an assistant professor at Lakehead University and author of Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations. For many, “the only death and dying we see is on movies, where it’s heightened and traumatic, and not the death most of us are going to experience.”
The goal of death positivity is to “take death out of the closet,” Kortes-Miller says, so we no longer see it as a Big Scary Thing, but as an integral part of life. The nonprofit organization Death Cafe, for instance, has hosted thousands of loosely-structured events where people meet to “eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death,” according to its website.
Another group, Death Over Dinner, has a website that helps people plan dinners where they can discuss end-of-life issues, suggesting reading, audio, and video materials. Kortes-Miller co-organizes an event called Die-alogues, which hosts speakers and small-group discussions on topics like bucket lists, the use of social media to acknowledge death and dying, and animal companion death.
Popularized in a tweet by Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, death positivity is inspired by sex positivity, especially in its emphasis on choice. It advocates supporting people regardless of how they choose to die, whether it involves a green burial or aggressive medical treatments, explains Jillian Tullis, an associate professor at the University of San Diego whose research focuses on communicating about death in end-of-life settings. Creating space for the ways marginalized communities navigate death is another important part of death positivity — for instance, considering how much harder conversations about end-of life care might be for Black and Brown people, who have historically receivedworse healthcare than their white counterparts, Tullis says.
Millennials, ironically, seem especially interested in death positivity. (Doughty, for instance, is in her 30s.) Kortes-Miller notes that many young people have shared stories with her about family members who didn’t know how to deal with an aspect of a grandparent’s death, because no one talked about it. “They want to do more than the generation before,” she tells Mic. Tullis adds that many of her students have begun grappling with their mortality in the face of the climate crisis.
Death positivity sees normalizing death as crucial to wellness. Besides reducing anxiety around death, “it influences how we choose to live,” Tullis says. “When you have death and mortality as a guiding light, so to speak, it can help you understand what types of things are really important”— whether family, good food, or grand adventures — so we can prioritize them.
It can also help us prioritize who we spend our time with and how we spend it, and tease apart what’s really worth stressing over. Indeed, fully recognizing that life is finite can be freeing, Tullis says. She adds that talking about death also helps us make sense of it when it does touch our lives — and can better equip us to help others in our community make sense of it when it touches theirs, Kortes-Miller says.
By normalizing death, we can also begin learning more about what it’s like and talking to our loved ones about what we expect from them in the process, and vice-versa, Kortes-Miller says. This way, once we reach that point and can’t speak for ourselves, our loved ones can make important decisions — such as whether to pursue aggressive treatment or how to dispose of our bodies — based on what we actually want, not what they think we want, and we can do the same for them. “Nobody likes to think about dying and being sick,” Kortes-Miller says. But discussing these topics, however painful and difficult, can in fact be “a gift to the people we love.”
If you think death positivity could help you live your best life, here’s how to start embracing some of its tenets:
Take time to reflect
Figuring out your dying wishes may seem scary and depressing, but asking yourself the two questions Kortes-Miller suggests could help you ease into it: 1) What would you be willing to sacrifice in terms of quality of life for quantity of life? and 2) What are your non-negotiables — the important things about how you live now that you wouldn’t be willing to give up? Delicious food? Your memory? Your independence?
Start having conversations with the people closest to you
While self-reflection is important, the main goal of death positivity is to normalize death by having conversations about it, Kortes-Miller says. She suggests swapping stories about death with a good friend or partner. You could start by talking about the first time you learned about death and the message it conveyed to you. How do you want to use, and even disrupt, that message?
If that feels uncomfortable, starting with someone else’s story might be easier. A TV episode or a case you hear about on the news, like that of Brittany Maynard, who chose to end her life in 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, could act as a springboard, Tullis says.
Add some death-positive books to your reading list. Kortes-Miller suggests Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Katherine Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial.
Attend a death positive event, or host your own
Check out a Death Cafe or other event in your area that encourages conversations about death. And just because it’s death-focused doesn’t necessarily mean the vibe will be all doom and gloom. Death Cafes, for instance, “often have cake and interesting people,” Tullis says, and Kortes-Millers notes that Die-algoues events are often abuzz with conversation and laughter.
You could also host your own death party. Some of Tullis’s friends get together to play Morbid Curiosity, a board game that features trivia and conversation cards about, well, death. One card, for instance, asks players, “If you could come back as a ghost, who would you haunt? What are the rules to haunting?” “You don’t’ have to go out and plan your funeral if you’re not there yet, but you can do little things that are fun and a little bit enjoyable,” Tullis says. In the end, death may really be only as scary as we make it out to be.
Death may be the ultimate stressful moment in our lives. Just thinking about the end is enough to cause your heart to beat faster. And while some levels of depression and anxiety are inevitable, those feelings need not overwhelm the death experience for you or your family. In fact, it’s possible to die well — to experience a sense of wellbeing as you approach the end. You can leave this life with a feeling of closure and a sense of contentment. That’s the difference between completing your life and merely ending it.
But stress disrupts well-being. It distracts you from prioritizing love, family, and dignity. Worry and fear interrupt precious time with family and friends. That’s no one’s idea of a good death. And while it’s easy to think you’ll skip this stressful step and go suddenly from a heart attack or stroke, the reality is the majority of us will need end-of-life care. So, put some thought and preparation into your passing now. Reducing stress will make it easier for you to say goodbye, and for your loved ones to let go. Here are six ways you can make dying the experience you want, rather than the experience you get.
Finalize Your Burial Arrangements
Preparing your burial arrangements lowers stress in several ways. For one, it puts you in control. Eliminate worry by outlining the type of service you want, the manner of internment, and the organ donation process. Burial arrangements also relieve financial stress from your family and friends. Carrying out your last wishes doesn’t have to be a financial burden for your family. So, find the best final expense insurance policy to cover costs. Or get a pre-paid funeral plan that kicks in after you’re gone. You’ll feel less stress knowing everything is taken care of.
Finally, by tending to your funeral arrangements yourself, your loved ones can focus more on spending time with you in your last day. And their grieving will be easier when they’re not weighed down with administrative tasks. Mourners often feel guilty devoting time to such business matters after a loved one dies.
Create a Living Will
If you become incapacitated before death, someone will have to make decisions for you. That’s a heavy responsibility to place on a family member or friend who may only have a rough idea of your wishes. But without a health care power of attorney (or proxy) to speak for you, you may end up being kept on life support longer than you’d prefer, or the opposite. An advanced directive or “living will” is a legal document that lists specific medical treatments you wish to receive and those you don’t. The directive takes the decision-making burden off your family’s shoulder.
To get started, have the end-of-life conversation with one or two people you would want to serve as your proxies. And also talk with your doctor so that everyone is on the same page. Living will forms vary by state. So, download your state’s advanced directive form to get started. If you don’t have the resources to create a living will, other forms of non-legal directives can work as some form of “proof” for your wishes. For example, write a letter to a family member expressing your wishes. Or record audio/video explaining what you want. While these aren’t formally recognized legal documents, they work better than nothing at all.
One thing that makes dying harder is knowing you’re leaving behind unsettled issues, old hurts, and past grudges. When possible, make amends with those you’ve hurt or who’ve hurt you. Now is the time for unburdening yourself and being honest with those you love. While you can leave those hurt feelings behind, your loved ones will carry them after you’re gone. And many will regret they didn’t say something when they had the chance. Knowing this will make leaving this life more stressful for you.
So, don’t put off making amends. Request a private audience with a loved one or wait for the right moment to broach the subject. Be honest and take responsibility for your part in the situation. Refer to the past event/issues that caused the rift, but don’t relive it all over again. And don’t bring up their responsibility; just explain your regrets and apologize. They will reciprocate. Think of this less as a discussion and more as a confession. So, listen more than you talk. The goal of making amends is to replace hurt and anger with forgiveness and love.
Revisit the Past
For those facing imminent death, the bulk of the conversation often focuses on medical needs, medications, or staff visits. While these are immediate needs are necessary, don’t forget the past. Revisiting old memories help us replace the current situation with one of our choosing — at least for a moment. Rather than a form of denial of death, recalling memories is an affirmation of our lives and our effect on others. For friends and family, recounting a past event is a handy way to show how a dying loved one impacted their lives. It’s often difficult for the dying person or loved one to find the right words in these moments. Words of condolence or regret can seem empty. But a pleasant or meaningful story can be a beautiful expression of our gratitude.
Recalling old memories is also a stimulating activity for Alzheimer’s patients. It fosters emotional connections and reduces anxiety. Use family albums, music, videos, or heirlooms to help prompt memories. Encourage family and friends who can’t travel or live too far away to send a short letter or audio recording. And don’t avoid humor. Include funny moments, old jokes, or humorous anecdotes. It may feel awkward at first, but laughter is nature’s way of helping us relieve stress and anxiety while connecting us.
Use Music Therapy
Studies suggest that music therapy has emotional and physical benefits for hospice and palliative care patients. Researchers found that patients who listened to music reported “less pain, anxiety … as well as an increase in feelings of well-being afterward.” Music therapy has a profound effect on people with cognitive and mental decline. The rhythmic nature of music requires little mental processing and helps stimulate memories. Choose music that your loved one enjoys, tunes from their childhood era, or a neutral New Age track. But don’t overstimulate; that can create stress. Take note of the other noises in the room. When mixed with many different sounds, even soothing music at a low volume to create a cacophony of stress.
Ask for Pain Medication When You Need It
Palliative care is about making patients feel as comfortable as possible until the end. And pain management and medication are part of this process. Unlike other vital signs, hospitals and staff can’t measure your pain. You have to help them know when you’re feeling discomfort. Still, some patients forego their pain meds because they want to stay awake to see their friends and family. Others see pain medication as “bad” substances or only for the weak or needy. But these are myths. Pain meds are integral to the palliative care process. And there’s no reason to forego pain medications that’s more important their your comfort. You may think you’re being strong for your family, but having to watch you fight intense discomfort will only increase their stress levels. Ask for pain medication when you need it.
These six tips will increase well-being and reduce stress when you’re nearing the end of your life. But once you’re faced with death, it’s important to know when it’s time to let go. Too often, we hold on too long out of a primal urge to keep going or fear of leaving our loved ones. Death is a natural process we all share. Take comfort in that immutable fact. Let your loved ones know you’re ready to go. They, too, will hold on to you, fearing that letting you go is “giving up.” This creates enormous amounts of stress. When it’s time, reassure them that — while you’re not ready to die — you have accepted it.
Can a shift in the way we treat death and dying improve our lives while we’re still here?
A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death
These days, for the most part, the concept of death is consumed by health care and medicine.
However, as humans we need to view death as more than just a medical event. It takes into account our psychology, spirituality, philosophy, social worlds, and personal lives.
This reconsideration should also apply to the way we treat people who are dying. Life is in the senses, not just our physical capabilities.
BJ Miller: Health care, medicine in our country is a giant, colossal thing. And it’s got a ton of momentum. And medicine has become– the domain of death is more or less ruled these days by health care. In times past, it’s been the church, or the family was the sort of center of all this.
These days, it’s mostly medicine. But what’s really important in all this is that we people, we humans, we patients, loved ones, we need to kind of take back the subject on some level– that dying is not just a medical event. It’s way bigger than that. It is all-encompassing. It’s where everything comes to account– our psychology, our philosophy, our spirituality, our social world, our intrapersonal lives– all of it. The medical piece is a little itty bitty piece. It just gets too much attention.
So I’ll just think about the emotions for a second. For one thing, to remind ourselves– for me, the difference between emotion and a thought is you can control your thoughts. You can’t really control your emotions. Emotions are much more slippery. They’re going to have their way with you. So you ignore them at your own peril.
That’s one thing to get across. But I also say that to let us off the hook. The way you’re feeling, on some level, isn’t your fault. And one of the things I see that happens a lot around this subject– again, we’ve talked about how one can be made to feel ashamed to be sick, ashamed to be dying, like we’re failing, somehow.
I want to make sure that we all understand, there are certain things that are way beyond our control. And that means– that may be hard to swallow, but it also means we’re off the hook. It’s not my fault, the way I feel. I shouldn’t have to hate myself or be embarrassed about it. So let’s set some ground rules.
And there’s this other layer that is particularly vexing, which is how others start treating you. And it’s very common, under the banner of sanctity or wanting to protect someone, to– I watch people, they stop telling jokes. Maybe they think it’s sort of sacrilegious to try to be funny around someone who’s sick. Or maybe they don’t talk about their own joys that they happen to have in their day while their colleague is meanwhile miserable with a fever or something. They don’t feel like they should talk about their own joys. Or I don’t know, whatever it is– pick anything.
But one of the things that ends up happening is we end up accidentally making life even harder for each other by keeping the truth of the situation at bay. All right? So these are the ways we die before we have to die. We die before we have to die because no one tells jokes to us anymore because they don’t think we’re going to want to laugh, or that sounds perverse.
Or maybe our partner stops the intimacy. Physical intimacy might dry up, or sexuality. The idea that a disabled person can be sexual, that’s still a novel concept. Just look at most exam rooms in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Most of them are not even wheelchair-accessible.
My mother uses a wheelchair. They used to just assume she wasn’t having sex, so they wouldn’t offer her a pap smear.
And so one of the things you want to avoid if you plan for your death is you want to– ideally, we come to our death without piles and piles of regret. So when I’m working with patients, especially upstream of their death, I’m always encouraging them to feel things, enjoy the body they have while they have it, appreciate their body while they have it, because it’s someday going to go, and you’re going to miss it.
So touch is just profound. It’s elemental. It is, even if you think about, I think, the scourge of dementia, for example– and a lot of us are terrified of this eventuality. We’re going to lose our minds. Yeah. And it’s hard. And that is a very difficult prospect. And I’m also pretty convinced that there’s a life on the far side of our intellect.
And for me, that life is in the senses. As long as I can feel something, I’m interested in being alive. I’m even more interested in that than a thought.
When Rosemary Bowen hurt her back last fall, she was diagnosed with a spinal compression fracture, a common injury for people with osteoporosis. At 94, the retired school reading specialist was active and socially engaged in her Friendship Heights neighborhood, swimming each day, cooking and cleaning for herself, and participating in walking groups, a book club and a poetry cafe. Doctors assured her that with physical therapy and a back brace, she would probably recover in about three months.
Instead, she announced to her family and friends that she had decided to terminate her life by fasting. After saying her goodbyes, she stopped eating, and in the early morning of the eighth day of her fast, she died in her sleep.
But first, Rosemary asked her daughter, Mary Beth Bowen, to film her fast. The final week of her life is now documented, day by day, in a 16-minute film, which was shown publicly for the first time Saturday at the End of Life Expo hosted by Iona Senior Services in Tenleytown.
It may sound macabre to hold a camera up to a dying woman. But Mary Beth said her mother wanted to spread the word that there was a legal, relatively pain-free way to end one’s life. “She thought that more people should take advantage of it,” she said. “She wanted to show people that it could be peaceful and even joyful.”
Rosemary’s plan didn’t completely surprise her family. She had lived through the Depression, when her father lost his job and moved the family to their grandmother’s farmhouse in Magnolia, Wis. Perhaps because of that experience, she was horrified by the idea of imposing on others, even temporarily, to the point where she would stay in a hotel rather than with family. “For all my life, she used to say, ‘People should row their own boats,’ ” Mary Beth said.
Rosemary had seen friends in their 90s who had slowly declined, and as far back as 1979 she wrote about her aversion to an old age with loved ones “shuffling in and out of rest homes visiting me.” When a friend ended her life by fasting, Rosemary decided someday she would do the same.
“At every family reunion she would talk about it — ‘When I get to the point where I can’t care for myself, then I’m going to hasten my death through fasting,’ ” Mary Beth said. “… She said, ‘Old Eskimos, they would just go off and die,’ and she thought that made so much sense.”
After her injury she spent two weeks at a rehab facility, and her daughters talked her into trying out an assisted-living facility. But she hated that she needed help with basic tasks such as cleaning herself, and after two days there she decided to go through with the fast.
Family members begged her to reconsider. Didn’t she want to see her great-grandchildren start to grow up, Mary Beth asked. One of Rosemary’s daughters said she was hurt that Rosemary would not stick around to see her granddaughter graduate.
But Rosemary was adamant. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to do what’s right for me,’ ” Mary Beth said.
There is no count of how many people choose this route, but it is gradually entering the public conversation. Radio host Diane Rehm revealed on a 2014 segment that her husband, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, had brought about his own death by fasting.
Depending on the person’s health and other circumstances, it can take from a few days to a few weeks before death occurs, according to published studies on the method. Refraining from drinking liquids can significantly hasten the process, as a person can survive for a long time by fasting alone. Proper mouth care is essential for a comfortable death, including keeping the person’s lips moist. Aggressive treatment for pain should also be available.
In a 2015 study, 80 percent of family physicians in the Netherlands who had treated VSED cases said the process had unfolded as the patients wanted; only 2 percent said it hadn’t. The median time until death was seven days. Doctors reported that 14 percent of their patients suffered pain in their final three days, and smaller percentages experienced fatigue, impaired cognitive functioning, delirium, and thirst or dry throat.
The results were similar to that of a 2003 study in which hospice nurses in Oregon were asked if they had treated patients who chose to stop eating and drinking. Eighty-five percent of those patients died within 15 days, and the nurses’ median score for the quality of their deaths, on a scale from 0 (a very bad death) to 9 (a very good death), was 8.
Even so, many advocates for aid-in-dying laws argue that people should not have to draw out their own deaths in such a way. Rehm made that argument vociferously after the death of John Rehm, who chose VSED after his doctor said he couldn’t give him drugs to end his life.
The next step after Rosemary decided she wanted to end her life was getting into a hospice program so she could receive aggressive pain medication and other support during the fast. Although she did not technically qualify for hospice since she didn’t have a terminal illness, an Iona staff member helped find one willing to accept her.
In the days leading up to her fast, Rosemary said goodbye to close friends and family members, and started eating half-size meals. Her last meal, for dinner on Dec. 5, was crab cakes. The next day, she stopped eating — and her daughter started filming.
The first scene shows Rosemary smiling, propped up against a blue satin pillow, her short gray hair framing her face. “I am leaving life with great joy,” she says. “I cannot tell you how content I am and I recommend it highly to do it this way. Be in control. Don’t let people decide anything about you and keep you doing a lot of procedures that are not going to benefit your health at all. Just get on with it and go.”
On Day 3 Rosemary says she feels “Okay. Good. Happy. Relieved.” On Day 4, her voice is still strong, and she has returned from walking down the hall with her walker.
Around then, Rosemary became impatient. She felt fine — too fine — and wondered why death was taking so long. Her daughter pointed out that she was still having small sips of water each day with a pill. So she stopped that, instead relying on tiny wet sponges to hydrate her mouth.
By Day 5, her voice cracks as she reports feeling “weaker, and I’m delighted.”
On Day 6, Mary Beth breaks from her neutral observer role and asks if her mother has any regrets about what she’s doing.
“Absolutely none,” Rosemary says.
“But you know that I would much rather have you live for another year or two,” Mary Beth says.
“Oh God,” her mother says with a grimace.
The film does not skip over difficult parts, including the last day Rosemary is conscious, when her mind starts to wander as her organs shut down, and she slips into a deep sleep.
In the audience at Iona, the film elicited mixed reactions.
Gerry Rebach, a former hospice nurse whose mother hastened her death with a fast that took 21 days, said, “It’s not easy, and this movie made it seem easy. I would hate for it to give false impressions.”
Rebach said she cannot imagine herself following her mother’s example. “I think it takes an incredible act of will to be sentient and be able to do that.”
Jean McNelis, a Friendship Heights resident who was friends with Rosemary for 20 years and watched the film Saturday, said she is in the process of figuring out details of her living will, will, and power of attorney. “I don’t have any opinion formed yet about what I want,” she said. “She gave me things to think about.”
Carol Morgan, 78, of Columbia Heights, was upset by the film. Her mother had also fasted to hasten her death in 2006. “It broke my heart,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t bear to see it. … There’s something in me that rebels against it.”
For Mary Beth, the filming was excruciating. She would mostly hold her tears back when she was with her mother, then burst into sobs in the parking garage.
But she saw how happy Rosemary was with her decision. “I felt so gratified that I was helping her on this journey that she was on,” she said. “We were in it together. We’ve always been close, but we became even closer. We’ve never been closer than that last week.”
In the end, helping her mother end her life felt like a sacrament. And filming it felt empowering. Since Rosemary’s death, several of her mother’s friends have told her they are considering following her example, she said.
When Esther Delaplaine, 95, a friend and neighbor, visited Rosemary during her fast, she said, “I had a chance to tell her … how her manner of going was a guide to me in some future that I would be facing.”
That was what Rosemary was hoping for. In the final scene of the film, she can be heard saying, “I feel so privileged to be exiting life like this, and think of all those people who are wringing their hands and saying ‘If only God would take me,’ and all they need to do is give God a little help by holding back on eating and drinking.”
By then, the bed is empty, the blue satin pillow still on it.
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.
The booming hospice industry is changing what it looks like to die in the U.S. Rather than under the care of doctors and nurses in a hospital, more Americans than not now spend their final days in familiar surroundings, often at home, being cared for by loved ones.
While hospice has been a beautiful experience during a difficult time for many families, a yearlong reporting project by WPLN finds end-of-life support often falls short of what they need.
“Our long-term care system in this country is really using family, unpaid family members. That’s our situation,” says professor Katherine Ornstein, who studies the last year of life at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “As we increasingly see that we want to provide home-based care, we’re relying even more on caregivers. And it does take a toll.”
The federal government has found that families often misunderstand what they’re entitled to when they elect hospice. And many still have to pay out of pocket for nursing home services or private caregivers, which Medicare rarely covers — all while the hospice agency is paid nearly $200 a day.
Hospice has catapulted from a sector led by nonprofits and volunteers to one dominated by investor-owned companies — including several based in the Nashville area such as Amedysis and Compassus — with more growth expected.
“This seems like it’s in sync with patient-centered care,” says Ornstein, “but the reality of that situation may be very, very challenging.
“I think we have a responsibility to really think about whether the families can handle this.”
‘A Longer-Term Thing’
The Fortners could be the poster family for hospice of old. On an overcast morning last May, they gathered with dozens of other grieving families at Alive Hospice’s residence in Murfreesboro for the nonprofit agency’s annual butterfly release.
McCoy Fortner, 8, opened a triangular box and a dormant monarch began to twitch.
“You can also whisper to it to tell the person in heaven what you want to say,” he explained.
He held the winged messenger on his forefinger until the black and orange wings perked up and stretched out. He relayed a few words to his father, Jeremy, who died two years ago of cancer.
“Thank you for being my best dad,” he said as the monarch took flight.
McCoy’s mom, Elicia, stood behind her son with tears in her eyes. Her husband called off endless chemotherapy. He was on hospice at home and then moved to a residential hospice facility where he passed away. Between the two, he was on hospice for 10 days.
Elicia Fortner said she just wishes they had stopped curative treatment and switched to hospice sooner.
“I don’t know if I really understood the options,” she said. “I didn’t realize hospice could be a longer-term thing.”
The Hospice Nudge
The average amount of time patients spend on hospice has been creeping up steadily, amid an industry-wide push that has aligned most of the interests in health care. The Affordable Care Act gave hospitals new incentives to reduce the number of deaths that occur in the hospital or shortly after a patient’s stay. Some studies suggest that’s caused an uptick in hospice use. And many doctors have been sold on the idea of prioritizing quality of life in the final days.
More patients are also eligible: Hospice has expanded beyond cancer to any terminal illness.
Very few people now die in a hospice facility. More often, hospice is received at home or, increasingly, in a nursing home.
Jessica Zitter, an emergency physician in Oakland, Calif., wrote a book about needlessly dying in the hospital on ventilators with very little consideration about quality of life. She advocates for prioritizing comfort care, which often means recommending hospice. When a patient has been told they have less than six months to live, Medicare and most private insurance will allow them to sign up for hospice services meant primarily to help them die in peace.
Zitter filmed one documentary called “Extremis.” It showed the impossible end-of-life decisions that have to be made in a hospital.
Then, she decided to make a second documentary, still in production, following a husband who took his wife home on hospice after ending cancer treatment.
Zitter met with Rick Tash and Bambi Fass for the nine weeks she spent in at-home hospice. The storyline didn’t play out as expected.
“It made me realize how naïve I — the doctor of death — was,” Zitter says. “This is this beautiful love story of these two people. Then you hear him say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’”
Tash became overwhelmed — from managing Fass’s morphine doses to getting her to the toilet every few hours.
With at-home hospice, everyday caretaking — and even many tasks that would be handled by professionals in a hospital or nursing home — are left to the family.
Medicare requires agencies to provide a few baths and a nurse check-in each week. But government data reveals that, on average, a nurse or aide is there at the house only about half an hour a day.
Zitter sat Tash down at his kitchen table, with his granddaughter on his lap. She encouraged calling in reinforcements.
“Asking for more support from hospice, if you need it, is really important,” she told him.
“Yeah, but what they offered me was a volunteer for two hours, one day a week,” Tash responded.
“That’s it?” Zitter asked.
“That’s what they offered,” Tash said.
Zitter was stunned. She realized Rick was getting all hospice had to provide, and it wasn’t nearly enough.
“The good death isn’t as easy as you might think,” she says. “We’ve got to put some things in place here so we can make it more likely that people can achieve that.”
When her husband got sick with kidney cancer and died four months later, Jane Whitlock, having had no experience with death or grief, found that the guidance and spiritual care provided by hospice just wasn’t enough. Resolving to find her own purpose while answering for the gaps she saw in end-of-life care, she followed her intuition and became a death doula.
A death doula, or end-of-life doula, is someone trained to provide holistic care to a dying individual. There is no nationally standardized certification program, which means there are multiple training options—a process that involves a set of training classes and documented hours of direct client support, plus whatever specific assessments a particular certification program requires. Death doulas represent a growing movement toward redefining our typical approaches to death.
A death doula’s role is as nuanced as each individual who occupies that role, and Jane Whitlock sees herself first as a companion. She provides comfort and support to the dying individual and their “tribe”—as she often refers to the circle of family and friends—through a time for which most people may not be spiritually prepared. Through intentional connection, she deciphers how she and the tribe can best serve the dying person. She abides by the slogan, “Death: it’s a collaborative event!”
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
The Growler: Why do you believe death doulas are important?
Jane Whitlock: A doula helps ask the big questions so this process is as spiritually comforting as it can be. Think of your deathbed and how you want to feel—at peace, right? So, how do you get there?
A doula also gives you some sense of what’s coming and can support you through these tough situations that you may not be prepared for. You haven’t been here before and often don’t have any bank of knowledge to draw from.
Cultures have evolved to include how we care for people who are dying and have died, and while some intact cultures can trace their beliefs back very far (to the Buddha, for example), Americans don’t have those deep ties.
Since the Civil War, the standardization of funeral homes, embalming, and the medicalization of end-of-life have removed death from the home. We no longer know how to care for people who are dying, how to have home vigils, how to mark significant transition points (leaving a body for the last time, a body leaving the house).
How can our modern standardized systems shift to accommodate what death doulas have to offer?
It would be amazing if hospitals employed doulas! Wouldn’t it be great if you could transfer someone who has died to a room to clean them up, bring the family in, and have someone guide them through rituals of saying goodbye and nurturing the body?
I think a lot of times this seems like a white lady movement—like, we want to cover everything in crystals and candles and aromatherapy or whatever. I push pack against that because there are so many other ways of experiencing death. This movement needs to be more inclusive, to change a whole bunch; being a death doula is a teeny, tiny door, and there is a lot of growth ahead.
What characteristics make an effective death doula?
You have to be able to empty yourself out, to be hollow and free of judgment, of any preconceived ideas about what should be happening. You have to listen without thinking and really be with someone when they’re suffering without trying to fix it. An effective death doula is someone who is calm, quiet, and vulnerable. It’s really so much about vulnerability.
I volunteer at a hospice and often have to practice that whole “soft belly” thing, to stop before every room and become wide open. Even when someone doesn’t want to see you, you have to think, “It’s not about me.” You just kind of clear your energy, go into the next door. You have to fight being defensive in order to just be vulnerable.
What are some ways to go about changing our death culture?
It really starts with your stories. We don’t tell our death stories; we tell our birth stories and our family stories, but we don’t tell our death stories. It would be great to just listen to a bunch of stories about how it happens, maybe know just some weird and messy stuff, too. What was it like? What would you have done differently? What went well? What surprised you?
There’s this guy, Dr. Allan Kellehear, who says our inability to talk about death is a public health epidemic. He refers to the AIDS epidemic and how you couldn’t shut a bathroom stall without a poster on the back teaching about prevention and safety. Wouldn’t it be great if we took that type of vast approach to shifting death culture?
Another maverick in the field, Suzanne O’Brien of Doulagivers, says there should be someone on every block who knows the end-of-life basics so that when somebody in your community is dying, they are supported.
Who do you think is the best at approaching death?
Well, the Buddhists, hands down. They’ve got the saying: “We are of the nature to get old; we are of the nature to suffer; we are of the nature to die.” Imagine if that’s how we started every morning—we wouldn’t be so shocked by death! There are people who think that aging is some kind of radical punishment or who feel entitled to live in a full healthy body forever. That’s just not our nature.
I would say that to prepare for death, you have to get your spiritual house in order, whatever that means to you. Life is finite, super fragile, and you are not entitled to anything! So, spend your time wisely and be grateful.