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The Good Death

by J. Malec

What is a Good Death?

Historically, dying was viewed as an opportunity to be called home to God, to obtain honor on the battlefield or be reunited with ancestors. Today our broad-based fear of mortality contradicts the cultural obsession with death in popular entertainment. The currently evolving "good death" movement encourages the use of resources to ease the acceptance of one’s mortality.

The Order of the Good Death, a professional association and special interest group in Los Angeles, encourages people to be "death positive." It explores ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for inevitable mortality.

Their mission is “ … about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears - whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.”

We know death is an unavoidable fact of life. Our planning guide "Cremation, Urns and Keepsakes: A History" discusses the evolution of the disposal of human remains, particularly by cremation with the earliest evidence of cremation dating back 20,000 years. Current trends indicate cremation is on the rise. Businesses continue to expand the range of ash containers and burial urns, as well as specialized urns such as cremation ash jewelry and animal urns for ashes.

With so much to-do going on in the funeral and cremation industry, why are we ill prepared to handle passing when it comes? As recently as the early 1900’s, birth and death occurred at home. A body stayed in the home for days while the family prepared for a home funeral. The current funeral industry didn’t exist at that time. Burial was just another facet of life. In America, the specter of the Civil War, and the sheer number of casualties changed the way death was finalized.

Advancements in medical science had the effect of transforming what had once been viewed as a natural mystery of life into a failure of body and physician. This took death out of the hands of the family and placed it in the trust of institutions. The rise of secularism and declining belief in an afterlife set the stage for a culture of fear, anxiety and confusion.

Death as Triumph

A recent article in the New York Times encourages us to “View Death as a Triumph, not a Failure.” Author Deborah Lutz recounts the loss of her sister-in-law, and subsequent research into how Victorian culture embraced death in awe of life:

“The Victorians cared about the mortal body; its very mortality mattered profoundly to them. Today we try to deny the body’s movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence. These were stages in the life of a beloved body and should be treasured. … The Victorians recognized that death’s presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings.”

In a stunning analysis of contemporary practices around death, she notes: “By avoiding the sight of the dying ... one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending.” Her argument points toward a renewed vision of what the experience of mortality can mean for us in a time defined by post-modern relativism.

The Event Horizon

We’re coming out of a dark time. How we’ve handled mortality in our culture is changing. There are great contributions being made in the field. Doulas (Greek for “woman who serves”), more often associated with childbirth, are now being trained to assist in easing the passing on of a loved one.

Indications suggest that the funeral industry is coming full circle. Our great-grandparents mourned in a way that normalized death as a part of living. We are now returning to a like-minded approach. We have access to a plethora of memorial products and services. Digital afterlives, letters from beyond the grave, cryogenics, being compressed into a diamond, shot into space or recycled into cemetery forests are options to memorialize a loved one. If there is to be a time in which we embrace the idea of a “good death,” that time is now.

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.