This fall, people from LA to Australia flew into Boston for a most unusual tourist attraction: death talk. The Death Salon has become the premier gathering for death conversation in the US. We stole a moment with its director Megan Rosenbloom to discuss the #deathpositive movement she helped launch.
WYD: You’ve said that death positive can be compared to sex positive?
Megan Rosenbloom: Humans all pretty much have sex. It’s a natural thing, but we’re not allowed to talk about it. It’s impolite to talk about. And when you have a practice that is part of everyone’s life that no one’s allowed to talk about and that is heavily influenced by certain areas of the culture … people start to repress it and suppress information about it. Because if you can’t talk about something than you just kind of pick up what you can and then there comes to be this idea that there are only certain okay ways to do a thing, certain sanctioned ways to do a thing, and that everything else is wrong and bad and not okay. But what you come to learn is that there are many ways to experience the phenomenon of sex or the phenomenon of death and there aren’t really right and wrong ways to do it for the most part, you know? I say for the most part because I’m sure we can all think of things that would not be okay.
MR: But for the most part. When you start learning about the history of a practice and different cultures’ reaction to the same practice that are universal, you start to realize there’s this really wide variety of possibilities there and maybe the way that your culture did a certain thing isn’t the thing that jives best with you. But if you find one that still works within the realm of acceptability in your time and place, then you can be comforted in knowing that you’re doing something that’s more in line with you. Like, what feels right to you isn’t wrong or bad or whatever. So part of what death positivity does is just like that with sex. Sometimes I joke about how, you know, it’s not just missionary, basically.
MR: There’s this one idea of death in America in 20th and 21st century.
MR: Which is, you know, you die in a hospital then you go to the funeral home where you get embalmed and you get put in a casket in a concrete vault in the ground and it costs, $10,000 or more. And that is the way we die in America. That’s the end. And then there becomes this cultural myopia where you think everyone else does it that way too, but then you find out that most people don’t embalm bodies anywhere. Whether they’re in Canada or Mexico, they don’t embalm bodies the way that we do here. And the reason we do that is because it comes from a place in our history with the American Civil War and the sort of ripple effect from that … you learn that, “Okay … it’s not illegal not to embalm a body,” and that funerals were done in the home up until, you know, the early 20th century basically or for the most part. Then there’s cremation, which nobody, hardly anyone, did in America before 1970 unless you were Buddhist or something.
MR: And then it took off in this way and now it’s getting up really high in terms of percentage of people who get cremated in the United States but in Europe it’s like 90% or something like that because they just didn’t have that embalming thing.
MR: But meanwhile if you go back – if you go to a funeral home, depending on how ethical or informed your funeral director is, they might say you have to get the body embalmed first because otherwise it’s dangerous or something like that. And “Oh, and also it adds an added fee” and that kind of thing. And so what happens is if you’re in a death negative culture or society just like a sex negative one, the closed conversations limit your options and they also allow people to kind of take advantage of you sometimes whether intentionally or not. Opening conversations means your opening options and then people who are often usually marginalized are given choice and then especially marginalized groups can be given tools to help themselves so that they can have the kind of death that they want. So if death is inevitable, if you know you’re going to have to deal with it, opening conversations and planning ahead can help lessen a lot of that anxiety and know that when Grandma dies you did what she wanted and not just what you thought she wanted.
MR: It can open up these conversations and also it can just make things easier logistically and financially and make a less burden. So that’s kind of a very long-winded way to say what we’re about. We’re about opening conversation, informing choice, and getting people to understand … somewhat broaden their horizons around their death experience. And when people feel like they have choices, their anxiety tends to go down and also the more you engage with death as a topic and talk about it and interact with it your anxiety goes down about it as well.
WYD: Right. Like, how much do you think our societal awkwardness around death is due to the fact that we don’t talk about it versus what death itself is?
MR: Yeah. I think there’s always going to be a sort of discomfort there.
WYD: Right. It’s always going to be the ultimate taboo.
WYD: Even if we still talk about it.
MR: Because there is, you know … It’s hard for humans often too, unless you really do a lot of work, meditation wise or however we get to it. It’s really hard for people to understand nothingness. To envision themselves being nothing. Like to not have experiences and all of that. That’s a really hard thing to do. And I understand if people never get there. I don’t know if I’ll quite get there, you know?
MR: And I think about this stuff every single day. But all that said, it’s the way the culture aids and abets this death denial. It ripples out to so many things in our culture, and that was what Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, really hit upon — Death and our denial of it in our culture effects everything in our culture. It is the reason that culture exists. You know, we create culture in order to try to get a piece of immortality, so that part of us stays after we die because we can’t deal with the idea of us just dying and disappearing. There are two things that people do to leave a legacy. One is to make art and the other is …
MR: And I’m just doubling up on that. Yeah. You know, there are other cultures where death is much more a part of life, where people interact with dead bodies very intimately …
MR: … And frequently.
WYD: It seems like in tribal cultures there’s less of a stigma around death, and its more openly talked about because people have seen it. And someone in our culture, if they are, you know, “lucky,” they may not see a dead body until their twenty-eight. You know what I mean?
MR: Yeah. I mean I teach a class and guest lecture for undergrads and so often the students in that class have never yet seen a dead body. There’s usually a few who have but most of them haven’t.
MR: And I’m not saying that’s bad necessarily, you know? If it just hasn’t happened. But you wouldn’t have had that luxury before if you were a child in the Victorian era and had twelve brothers and sisters and only, you know, six of them made it out alive.
WYD: Right. Or grew up in Delhi today probably.
MR: Exactly. And the sick were taken care of at home and the funerals were held at home and buried on your families land and all of that. You would have been well acquainted with death. Or your classmates at school, you know, that kind of thing. This would have happened a lot. And the families all living together, and there would be multiple generations of families together. All those things kind of add to it. It just so happens that the culture in America right now, that people found this way to institutionalize and kind of shift away the corpse as if it is like toxic waste, you know?
MR: “Okay … So Grandma’s getting too old to take care of. We’re going to put her in a home and then from the home when she dies she goes directly to the funeral home and then into the box and we might never see that body,” you know? And so some people find it comforting that they don’t have to do that, they don’t have to interact with the body. But for others, even though it is uncomfortable, if they do sort of rituals whether they’re religious or not and mark the space with a body, spend time with the body, wash the body, help dress the body, do special, you know, remembrances for the dead, hold a wake in your home, anything like that, it helps them mark that milestone in life.
MR: And the ritual helps them move on to the next phase of their own lives and feel that there’s a separation. Otherwise, sometimes people just felt like someone disappeared on them, you know?
MR: That they were there and then suddenly they’re not there, but there’s no closure or anything like that.
WYD: Well it’s almost hard to believe until you see the body too, you know? Like you’re just hearing words that mean nothing in a sense until you have some sort of direct experience with it.
MR: Yeah. My Mother was just visiting with the baby and everything and she loves to watch TV and I don’t really ever watch it anymore, but she had this channel on, and I won’t say the real name but it’s basically like, ‘24-Hour Horrific Murder Channel.’ … A lot of these cases, they haven’t found the body. They don’t know what happened to their kid.
MR: And the not knowing is worse.
MR: And a lot of them said that themselves. That, you know, that it’s worse that I don’t know what happened to them.
WYD: You can’t have peace with something that you’re not acquainted with.
MR: Yeah. So I wonder if some people feel a less intense version of that when someone dies and then is just kind of shunted out so quickly.
WYD: Well even the embalming process and the make-up, even that is a small version of concealing the death that has taken place, right?
WYD: Like, “Oh, let’s make them look alive. Let’s put makeup on Grandpa who never wore make-up in life,” you know?
MR: Yeah. My family was Irish Catholic and they did the whole open casket thing no matter what happened to the body, like what happened to the person, which I personally … Isn’t my vibe, you know, the whole embalmed open casket thing.
MR: And inevitably like I remember being a kid and being at funerals and my family would walk up to the dead body and they would start yelling things like, “That’s not him!” You know.
WYD: Oh, yeah.
MR: Like, “That’s not him! It doesn’t look like him! You must have made a mistake!” And you’re like, “Okay … If they did that would be a pretty big mistake.”
WYD: Mistake of the century.
MR: But they’re looking at this sort of waxy dolled up version of their loved one.
WYD: Yeah. It’s a wax museum piece.
MR: And so it doesn’t really look like, you know, your relative, like there’s something changed, that is not the same as looking at your uncle who’s sleeping.
WYD: Yeah, totally.
MR: It’s just not the same and the not-the-sameness can be really helpful but then also it can go the other way and go into sort of ‘Uncanny Valley Land,’ where they’re then feeling kind of traumatized in the moment by the show of the, you know, embalmed-up, make-up-upped corpse.
MR: But for other people, for certain cultures and everything, that is the important marker, you know? So I’m not saying that death positivity isn’t inherently anti-embalming.
WYD: Right. It’s not anti any one approach.
MR: Yeah. It’s more about people being, you know, exposing people to options and supporting rituals whether religious or not that help people mark that transition and help people through the process of grief. Because there are certain cultures for which the embalming, the embalmed body, is the thing.
MR: There’s some interesting studies in the sort of social psychology sphere about what happens psychologically to a death denial culture -that they tend to be more patriotic and sort of jingoistic or whatever, xenophobic …
MR: I don’t know if any of this is ringing a bell right now?
WYD: Yeah. Right now. Are we a death denial society?
Megan Rosenbloom: Yeah. When people have high death anxiety and denial of it then they tend to sort of villainize other people who think differently than they do and there’s a lot of fall out from that mindset. Societies that are like that tend to be more warlike etc.
WYD: Kind of acting out of fear?
MR: Yeah. Because they feel like they’re fighting for their lives, you know? Literally in this way.
WYD: Yeah. Yeah. Wow. That’s very profound.
MR: Yeah. So I think that cultures who deal with death more intimately and are able to process it in a more sort of … closer and psychologically, I want to say healthier way that there tends to be more empathy. There tends to be more understanding of divergent ideas, etc. So we could all use a little, you know, death positivity injected into this culture to sort of give us a better understanding of other people and acceptance of other ways of being. I think those things tend to go hand in hand.
Megan Rosenbloom is also the co-founder and director of Death Salon, the event arm of The Order of the Good Death, and a leader in the Death Positive movement and the Associate Director for Instruction Services at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is on a research team out to find the historic and scientific truths behind the world’s alleged books bound in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, and has a narrative non-fiction book about the history and ethical implications of this practice publishing with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019, tentatively titled Dark Archives. https://meganrosenbloom.com
Listen to our full conversation with Megan Rosenbloom here.
The When You Die staff is committed to bringing death back into our everyday conversations as an integral part of our human journey.