Caitlin Doughty is one of the most obvious faces of death positivity and the Order of the Good Death. And she wrote a really good blog post that I only just found out about:
Any bolding in the following quote is mine, for emphasis:
I met my partner when I was 34. He was different. I was different. Instead of looking at each other with that half-cautious raised eyebrow, slightly uncomfortable thing people give you when you’re just being your normal strange self, we relaxed around each other. We spoke the same language. Our early courtship days were full of discussions on religion, fears of death, the cultural intersections of personal loss and addiction. We talked about death a lot. The first time I saw him naked, I told him he had a great body. He said, without missing a beat, “thanks. It’s a rental.”
Eight years ago, I watched him die. He drowned on a beautiful, ordinary, fine summer day.
My understanding of death as a natural process did not help me. My familiarity with death rituals and funerary art and the darker, harder aspects of life did not make his death – or my grief – any easier. Accepting that death happens can’t make death okay. Not Matt’s death, and not deaths that many in this world see.
I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think a lot of what we have in mind when we think of death positivity is death that happens at the end of a normal, natural, expected western lifespan. In those kinds of deaths, you get to be sad, yes. But it makes more sense, in addition to that sadness, to lean on our ideas about the cycles of life, of the beauty in a life lived well. Death positivity feels really congruent in the face of those kinds of deaths.
But that’s not the only way we die.
Sometimes death is not beautiful. Sometimes death is not normal. Sometimes death is wrong.Caitlyn Doughty, “Death Positivity in the Face of Grief”‘, Order of the Good Death
I am really glad she is writing about things like this.
The topic reminds me in some ways of my recent post, Everyone’s Death Belongs to Them Alone: What Octopuses and Hospice Can Have in Common.
Except that I was mostly dealing with the ethical and power-related issues involved in working in the hospice or other parts of the death industry. And she is dealing with the topic on a more personal level. But both of us are trying to get at something about the way that standard death positivity alone can fail people.
The common theme I noticed
Another quote from her article:
There’s a weird, clanging disconnect when we try to apply what we know as death positive people into the gaping open wound of death itself, especially the “out of order” kinds. Accidents and natural disasters can’t be treated as a “natural process.” Hate crimes, gender-based violence, deaths hastened by lack of access to health care, death created by acts of war or targeted genocide – we can’t claim those deaths as beautiful. We can’t use our standard language here. Talking about these kinds of death – and the grief that comes with them – is one of the last real taboos.
What I hear from people grieving losses from these kinds of death is that being friendly with death – even being deeply interested in it as a cultural exploration – feels wholly irrelevant to their grief. A mother whose 14 year old son was killed by a drunk driver told me recently that the death positive movement felt “too hip to be of use.” That the art, the cafes, the memes about day of the dead, and roman crypts, and bat tattoos felt flippant in the face of what they were living.Caitlin Doughty, “Death Positivity in the Face of Grief”, Order of the Good Death
I hate that. And, I get it. Without meaning to, we can alienate or injure people going through some of the hardest times of their lives.
Again, I am glad she is writing all this. As a funeral home director, I’m sure she sees more than her fair share of these situations. And I have always admired her ability and willingness to go deeper than a shallow understanding of death positivity would allow. She may have helped define death positivity as a movement, but she thinks for herself. I may not always agree with her, but I always learn something from her.
And while people may like to caricature her, and the movement she is associated with, as a goth kid who doesn’t understand Real Death? In reality, despite all the images associated with her in people’s heads, when it comes to dealing with death and grief she is extraordinarily sensitive to the experiences of other people. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and difficult situations. She doesn’t go in for easy answers. If you are walking in the dark, she is someone you want by your side. And she will
Anyway, in the wake of the antisemitic massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, I find her blog post to be more relevant than ever. I don’t quite understand how I never saw it until now, but I am glad to have found it. Like many good posts, it makes you think, and gives you more questions than answers.
Also I had no idea that she lost a partner to drowning. I know this must have happened a long time ago, but my heart goes out to her. I can’t imagine.
Another blog post by the same author, worth reading:
For the first few years I was an advocate for reform in the death industry, I used phrases like “death awareness” and “death acceptance” to describe the movement I was a part of. After all, these were the terms used since the 1970s by scholars and practitioners.
I became “death positive” almost by accident. It started with a tweet, asking why we had movements like body positivity and sex positivity, but we couldn’t use that same umbrella to be forward thinking about our own deaths. People began to respond to the tweet, and the term took off. As an advocate, you go where the enthusiasm and momentum take you, and the term death positivity was challenging and necessary.
I would never tell you to self-identify as death positive. Even if you share all of our principles (laid out here), and support our advocacy, that may not mean you want to align with the movement. That’s fair! But I’ve noticed some misconceptions about the movement’s purpose and values lately, and I want to make sure our stance is clear.Caitlin Doughty, “What Death Positive Is Not”, Order of the Good Death