Death Is Having a Moment

Fueled by social networking, the growing “death movement” is a reaction against the sanitization of death that has persisted in American culture since the 1800s.
The crowd at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles during the Death Salon cabaret. (Elli Papayanopoulos)

Last Friday night, onstage at a Los Angeles venue known for featuring indie bands, a goateed historian in a vintage purple corduroy suit and silver silk shirt beguiled a room packed with artists, writers, scholars, morticians, and other curious observers, with his research into bejeweled skeletons from the Roman Catacombs.

The topic of the night was death, but not in a horror-filled, Halloweeny way. The gathering drew an intellectually hip and increasingly death-conscious crowd of mostly 20 and 30-somethings, who had waited in a long line outside of the Bootleg Theater to get in. They sipped bottles of La Fin Du Monde and plastic cups of Populist beer from the Eagle Rock Brewery, and perused copies of the Lapham’s Quarterly death issue between cabaret acts, which included a soulful shaggy-haired death gospel singer, a writer of death and obscure history, and a funeral director.  

The weekend-long Death Salon also featured presentations on decomposable garments for the grave, discussions on feminism and the funeral industry, and a Saturday night death soiree in Silverlake with “funerary treats,” like cupcakes topped with edible tombstones. The event was part of a recent surge of people trying to demystify death through social and educational gatherings, one that is spreading across the U.S. and beyond with death dinners, death cafes (talking death over tea and cake), and waitlisted death-related classes on college campuses.

“You have this critical mass of interest. Death is fascinating,” said 29-year-old Caitlin Doughty, who has been called a hipster mortician, but prefers “macabre nerd.” A Death Salon organizer and host of the YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” Doughty is enthused that the broader public is finally beginning to appreciate death as she does. “What if all of a sudden being involved with your own mortality is cool?”

Forty years ago, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker claimed that fear of our own mortality was the fundamental motivator behind all human behavior. But could popularizing death through social settings help it become less scary for the rest of us? Some scholars think so, since prolonged exposure to death in comfortable environments, where dying is viewed as an essential part of living, has shown decreases in death anxiety.

“What’s interesting about people flocking to these parties is that a lot of people want to have those conversations in a private arena,” said Laura Harrawood, a professor of counseling at McKendree University, who has studied death anxiety. “Often people are afraid to bring death up at all,” she said, but “celebrating and talking about it in an open dialogue can be healthy.“

On stage at the Death Salon’s Friday night cabaret, a medical historian wearing a corset and fitted pencil skirt spoke of seeing her first cadaver. Lindsey Fitzharris recalled how a pathologist handed her the heart and kidney, and she fell into the detachment of the dissection. “Everything was on display,” she said. “All the muscles, and all of the tendons. Then my eyes fell on her hands. On her fingertips was a red fiery nail polish. I will remember that until the day I die.”

“This is even cooler than I thought it would be,” said Savannah Dooley, a 28-year-old television writer who professed to have no particular obsession with death. She stumbled upon the Death Salon on Facebook and decided to bring a date. “For someone not comfortable with death, this makes it accessible.”

*  *  *

Fueled by social networking and the Internet, the growing “death movement” is a reaction against the sanitization of death that has persisted in American culture since the 1800s, with the rise of embalming bodies to make them look lifelike, or having loved ones die in hospice or in hospitals instead of at home, said Megan Rosenbloom, head of metadata and content for the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California, and Death Salon organizer.

“Too often people experience the untimely death of a loved one and are thrown into their own existential tailspin,” Rosenbloom said. “You realize you’re going to die someday, and wonder how could someone your age die? What happens is people have a selfish response to other people’s deaths. The more you deny it and try to be separate from it, the more people are psychically destroyed when it happens in their lives.”

In recent decades, psychological researchers have developed ways to measure the emotional reactions that emerge when considering death, using surveys like the Multidimensional Fear of Death Scale (MFODS), which assesses areas like fear of being destroyed, fear of a conscious death, and fear of the body after death.

These researchers have found that jobs in which workers jump from one tragedy to another, like critical care nurses, can lead to increased death fears, as can jobs in which people put their lives at constant risk, like police and firefighters, who score higher on death anxiety scales than college faculty and business students.

Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris discusses anatomical specimens she has encountered in her work.(Elli Papayanopoulos)

That makes sense to Doughty, whose work in the death business over the last six years, has allowed her to handle the corpses of everyone from babies to drug addicts to elderly people who committed suicide. “If you’re getting little snippets of death in a horror movie or on the news—like those women who died in a limo fire—yeah it’s going to train you to be in this cycle of fear, absolutely,” she said. “They are little fear bombs that go off in your mind and reinforce a pattern of terror.”

Presented by

Erika Hayasaki is an assistant professor of literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, and a former national correspondent at the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life.

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