Flickr / Sheila Sund
The biggest generational cohort in the United States – the baby boomers – are slowly starting to die off. This cohort that undoubtedly changed the world, ended the war, and put forth a new set of American values is starting to decline. Just as baby boomers have molded so many industries across the country, it comes as no surprise they are spurring change in perhaps the most intimidating realm of all: death. Coined as “deathcare” or “death wellness,” the death positive movement is taking the world by storm. By transforming what was once considered too taboo to talk about into a new realm of wellness, deathcare is expanding people’s views about what it means to die and how the process should take place.
Doing death a disservice
Although many Americans would prefer to pass in the comfort of their home, few actually do. In fact, studies have shown that although 80% of people would rather die somewhere familiar, like home, than in the hospital. Yet it is reported that only 20% of people actually die at home. The other 80% either pass in acute care hospitals (60%) or in nursing homes (20%). While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that so many people are passing in hospitals, those working in these spaces are extremely unprepared when it comes to dealing with the subject of death and dying. Many are trained to ward off death, yet few are awarded the professional guidance to help the dying move on to the next life. In one survey, half of all medical students and residents admitted they feel ill-prepared when it comes to patients and concerns when they’re on the brink of death. This wide gap in healthcare – which deathcare is undeniably part of – has made way for the rise of the death positivity movement.
Emerging from the shadows of death misunderstandings, several organizations seeking to redefine death and death doulas are starting to take hold. “The common thread is that they’re all willing to engage with the profound questions around dying: How do we best prepare? How can we make the experience less frightening to ourselves and others? What might we expect if consciousness continues after death? What are the most effective and compassionate ways of working with the dying and their families?” commented Ralph White, the co-founder of the New York Open Center that launched its own Art of Dying Institute. The institute focuses on redefining how people understand death, deathcare, and death positivity. “We consider this a reflection of American culture’s growing openness to addressing death and dying more candidly,” White continued.
Some people even choose to elicit the help of a guide through the process of death. These guides, also known as death doulas, help ease one into the act of dying. They also help family members adjust to the aftermath of a death, when they may feel strong feelings that otherwise have never been addressed due to the stigma around death. While there’s no set list of death doula services, many may help provide vigil planning, legacy projects in memorial of the soon-to-be-deceased, emotional comfort for the dying person, guided visualizations, and more. Death doulas have become so popular in recent years, more and more organizations are being created to help train those interesting in assisting people between life and death. One such organization is the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA), a nonprofit with a mission to bring “deeper meaning and greater comfort to dying people and loved ones in the last days of life.” Founded in 2015, the organization offers private and public doula training and a doula certification process. INELDA has trained more than 2,000 doulas who work in hospices, hospitals, communities, and the homes of people in need.
Deathcare and community
Interest in death and deathcare isn’t only among those who are dying. In fact, meeting up and talking about death has become more popular than ever. Death Cafe, for instance, is a social franchise that invites people to eat cake, drink tea, and talk about death, of course. Since September 2011, Death Cafes are available at 8,695 locations in 65 countries. This goes to show that interest in the dialogue of death is more universal than ever. Another group, Death Over Dinner, has a similar message of normalizing the topic of death over a nice meal. The group has facilitated more than 200,000 death-themed dinners. “Death is not a morbid thing. We’ve turned it into a medical act, sterilized it and separated it from life,” said Michael Hebb, Death Over Dinner’s founder. “People don’t focus on the darkness of the topic. They do focus on vulnerability and human connection. Through looking at death, they’re falling in love with each other.”
In simple terms, perhaps this is what the deathcare trend is all about. Dying positively isn’t about having our death our way. Instead, dying positively is learning to fall in love with each other again, even in the face of death. Dying doesn’t have to be something we fear, especially if we start the conversation early about the underlying questions we have and on what term’s we’d like to pass. Although there’s been an undeniable stigma surrounding the idea of death, an open form of communication and the help of an informed guide may be just what we need to pass on to the other side in a peaceful, positive manner.