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.
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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.”

Relying on the media to understand death isn’t realistic, she said. A University of Minnesota study suggested the same when it found that students who watched 10 episodes of “Six Feet Under” over a period of five weeks had a mild increase in fear of death, although they showed less fear about what happens to the body after death, and less fear of being destroyed.

In contrast, those who work in professions like Doughty’s, with the most intimate, at times prolonged exposure to individuals’ deaths, such as hospice care workers, medical students, physicians, and suicide prevention workers, show lower levels of death anxiety.

Harrawood of McKendree University conducted a study in 2009 that measured the death anxiety of 243 U.S. funeral directors, and found that those who had been in the business longer showed less fear of death than their younger counterparts, suggesting that “daily conscious acceptance of death,” decreases fear.

In other studies, those close to dying, such as the elderly or terminally ill also showed lower levels of death anxiety, indicating that coming to terms with the end can make it more acceptable, wisdom that younger and healthier people could learn from.

“A person needs to be exposed over a longer period of time in a rational way,” Doughty said. “Reading, talking about it, watching documentaries, going to cemeteries and sitting and thinking about your mortality. Not seeing a quick glimpse of a body without makeup, but actually sitting with the body for period of days and letting it be normalized.” She plans to open a funeral home that allows families to wash, dress, and sit with their dead loved ones, instead of sending them off for someone else to embalm.

Doughty believes your relationship with death is one of the most important you will have in life. “It’s constant work,” said Doughty. “It’s not like I reached a certain point and was like, ‘death, I’m so comfortable. I can die whenever. YOLO!”

But speaking earnestly and intelligently about death and loss can help us integrate it into our lives more fully, and develop more comfort with it, said Robert A. Neimeyer, editor of Death Studies, the leading professional journal in the field, and an author of books on death anxiety and grief therapy.

“Whether frank and courageous conversation about death and loss takes place in a classroom, therapist's office, church or temple, or the local Starbucks,” Neimeyer said, “my guess is that it can help us explore and articulate frameworks of meaning for negotiating the often unwelcome transitions that confront us all.”

*  *  *

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker said awareness of our own death made each of us want to engage in activities that rendered us unique, reaching a level of “immortality” by leaving our mark on the world, and impelling us to look for permanence in our kids and careers, art and architecture, religions and cultures. This desire, he said, steers our decisions, including ideologies, fellowships, and fashion choices.

“When I came to the Death Salon, I was really curious about who would be here,” said Allison de Fren, a filmmaker in the audience who spoke during the question and answer session of a Friday afternoon Death Salon panel. Held at The Center for Inquiry in Hollywood, the panel featured a professional dominatrix who had worked in “death play,” a medical-humanist scholar trained in 18th century literature, an alternative mortician, and the founder of Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based museum and library.

“I would say there is a particular aesthetic going on,” de Fren said, glancing around the room and noting the number of women wearing cat-eye glasses, and that most appeared to be in their 30s. One wore a Raggedy Ann-style vintage dress and had bright pink hair. Another, a kimono top and a side mullet. Plenty sported straight across fringe bangs.

Like Becker, psychologists who work in Terror Management Theory (TMT), believe that each human’s constructed identity is a shield, an “elaborate drapery that provides us with the fortitude to carry on despite the uniquely human awareness of our mortal fate.”

It could be argued that death get-togethers are simply expressions of deep-rooted death denial. No matter how much we might claim to be unafraid of death, or believe that we can be, fear of it always catches up to us, festering in our psyche. We can try to tackle our obvious death fears together, but it will still remain in the collective and individual subconscious.

“What is the fundamental root of human behavior?” Doughty said. “I think it’s death. I agree with Becker. I think about what I’m doing every day working to bring awareness of death into the culture. That is my own hero project. Absolutely. But I try to be aware of that.”

At the Death Salon cabaret, Paul Koudounaris, the scholar who researches bejeweled skeletons, gave a slideshow of anonymous skulls from the late 16th century. They were believed to be the remains of early Christian martyrs. He told the story of how he had been photographing in Germany one day when a local asked if he would be interested in seeing a skeleton covered in jewels holding a cup of its own blood.

“That’s like asking a child if he wants candy. Would you be interested in chocolate rivers?”

Koudounaris said the man told him to go through a path in the forest, to an old, dilapidated church. “If you pull off the boards on a side alter you’re going to find something splendid,” he remembered the man telling him. “And indeed I did.”

They turned out to be the finest works of art ever created in human bone.

Building rituals, scholarship, art, and community around death may have arisen out of subconscious fear as forms of “symbolic immortality,” which allow people to feel like a part of something larger. But some might argue that these cultural creations are needed to protect us from our own realization that we are “animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe,” as TMT theorists put it, who turn into, “complex and fancy worm food,” as Becker wrote.

The Los Angeles Death Salon was the first of its kind, but there will be one in England in 2014, and in Cleveland in 2015, opportunities for the public to glimpse what can be revealed, sometimes splendidly, when what is peeled back is not the necessarily absolute fear, but the layers of death itself.

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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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