Talking about death and dying

September 12th, 2018

The hardest conversation

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is famously attributed as saying, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While Franklin’s quip was likely more concerned with taxes than death, it’s a grim reality that we must face our mortality every day. In our modern world, more than 100 people die every minute, according to a recent article in The Economist. However, despite the unavoidable nature of death, American society — the church included — has shied away from addressing this difficult subject.

What’s made us so afraid of the inevitable? In her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, author Barbara Ehrenreich explores the complex world of aging and dying. Much of our modern “preventative care,” she proposes, is essentially an attempt to exert control over our bodies, which don’t always act in ways that we would wish. Exercise, healthy eating, even meditation — all prescribed as strategies to slow aging and prevent illness — may not have the effects that we believe. In fact, cells may have a degree of agency, doing what they wish to do, instead of what we want them to do. Ehrenreich writes, “If there is a lesson here it has to do with humility. . . . We are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.”

This insight may signal a paradigm shift in how researchers think about health and disease. For Ehrenreich, it served as a personal reminder that despite the control she exerts now in her life, she will one day have to relinquish that control and accept death. That acceptance inevitably comes for each person, writes Victoria Sweet, doctor and author of God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Healing. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Sweet writes, “I’ve noticed that everyone I’ve seen die does come to accept the inevitable loss of control. . . . At the end, something magical appears to occur — something beautiful, something Other — that seems to heal the spirit, ally all fear, and settle, finally, the struggle for control.”

This acceptance comes at different times for different individuals. Some take months or even years to accept the inevitability of death. Others take days, hours, even minutes. But, Sweet writes, “People die the way they’ve lived. . . . The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control.”

A 21st-century funeral

Changing funerary rituals reflect changing attitudes toward death and dying in our world today. A 2015 study found that over 60 percent of Americans, middle age and older, would consider a “green” burial, one that excluded embalming and used a biodegradable casket. It would be inconsistent, says Jimmy Olson, a “green” undertaker in Wisconsin, “for someone who’s recycled all their life and drives a Prius to then be put under the ground in a concrete vault, plastic-sealed casket and with their body pumped full of chemicals.”

Additionally, over half of all Americans are cremated, which allows for funerals or “life celebrations” to be hosted at a variety of venues. Startup companies catering to the bereaved also offer a number of new opportunities. One company offers to spread your loved one’s ashes in space; another promises to extract a strand of DNA from a loved one’s remains to be returned to you in a stainless steel capsule. Linda Cronin, who works in the funerary industry, has earrings made out of her mother’s ashes. She says, “My Mom is in my ears, I take her wherever I go, I even swim with her.” Social media coaches are working to bring the funerary business into the 21st century. Moving away from images of coffins and hearses, these coaches advise funeral homes to advertise the services they offer, such as live-stream funerals or nontraditional life celebrations. As innovation and new technologies allow mourners to approach the physical reality of death in new ways, the question remains: How should we talk about death and dying in the meantime?

“Death cafe”

Despite the discomfort most people have discussing death, it appears that a growing number of people are hungry for places to do just that. The Death Cafe movement, started by Jon Underwood, a British website designer, has flourished over the last seven years. Built on the ideas of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, the movement seeks to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,” according to the website

Set up as a casual conversation, Death Cafes traditionally offer tea and cake along with their challenging topic of discussion. In a 2013 NPR article, Underwood said, “When people sit down to talk about death, the pretense kind of falls away, and people talk very openly and authentically.” These authentic conversations about human mortality draw people from every demographic, from aging baby boomers to middle-aged couples to young adults looking for ways to discuss death more honestly.

“In the long run,” says Angela Hennessy, mother of a seven-year-old boy, “my hope is that [participating in a Death Cafe] eases the fear and the strain for him in his understanding of what it means when someone dies.” Hennessy and her son went to a Death Cafe following the death of his great-grandmother.

Linda Siniard has facilitated several Death Cafes since the death of her son. She explains, “A lot of us had sort of put dying and death — and definitely grief — into these very secretive closets, because we weren’t welcomed into the conversation.” Death Cafes also offer a safe and supportive environment to discuss all of the different parts of life that accompany death and dying, from end-of-life care to grieving rituals.

In the NPR article, Underwood said, “When we acknowledge that we’re going to die, it falls back on ourselves to ask the question, ‘Well, in this limited time that I’ve got, what’s important for me to do?’” Underwood’s perspective has become more poignant in the wake of his own untimely death from acute promyelocytic leukemia in June 2017 at the age of 44. The work of the Death Cafe movement has been carried on by Underwood’s mother, Sue Barsky Reid, and sister, Jools Barsky.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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