Death Is No Laughing Matter. But on DeathTok It Is.

An unlikely group of influencers on TikTok is using cheeky skits and viral songs to change our relationship to mortality.

Americans struggle with talking about death. To remedy that, some hospice nurses have taken to TikTok to soothe people's qualms with macabre humor. (Irene Suosalo)

Casual TikTok viewers might think of the app as just a feed of Gen Zers doing viral dances and lip-synch reenactments. But the social network has also provided a space for some unlikely influencers: hospice workers, morticians, and funeral directors. These content creators hope that their comedic takes on mortality will help people who find death hard to discuss, especially during the pandemic, in which more than 900,000 Americans have died. DeathTok, as it’s called, is a corner of the platform where skits about end-of-life care, funeral arrangements, and death-worker mishaps bring comfort to those suffering through grief and loss, and clarity to those who are curious about an oft-avoided topic.

Our inability to plainly discuss death and its circumstances stems, in part, from the American ethos of self-reliance, according to Cole Imperi, a well-known author and speaker on the subject of death and thanatology. “We value the story of somebody coming to the U.S with $5 in their pocket and they make it … needing nobody,” she told me over Zoom. The end of life, Imperi explained, sits in direct opposition to this philosophy: As people age and approach death, they rely on others for help. The fear of lost autonomy (be it one’s own or a relative’s) makes planning for, grieving, and processing death hard for many Americans. “We don’t have a lot of practice with knowing how to talk about something that’s painful, scary, or difficult all the way through,” Imperi said. She believes that the humor DeathTok offers can be a useful tool for pushing through this discomfort. “Having humor is critically important when it comes to death and dying,” she said. “Humor is necessary. Humor helps us heal.”

Although some find death-based comedy unpalatable, many TikTok viewers agree with Imperi’s estimation that the levity of a well-placed joke can sometimes make difficult situations easier. When I spoke with Penny Hawkins, a 59-year-old hospice quality-control manager from Washington, she explained how she uses comedy to educate others. “If you’re talking about a really heavy subject like death and you’re able to put kind of a funny spin on it, it makes it a little more palatable. It’s not quite so scary,” said Hawkins, who has more than 300,000 followers on her nurse_penny TikTok account. She encourages viewers to be curious about human anatomy by explaining what happens to failing bodies. For example, to tackle the misconception that hospice patients need to stay hydrated, Hawkins danced to the viral song “Just Water,” by the TikTokers Bryansanon and Tisakorean. To caption her video, she wrote: “If your dying person isn’t taking fluids, that’s ok. Their body is shutting down and doesn’t need it.” The chorus, which repeats the line “It’s just water!,” serves as a whimsical background to Hawkins’s blunt explanation.

Three scrolling tik tok feeds with a hospital gurney and ekg machine in background.
Irene Suosalo

Hawkins has also used macabre comedy to illuminate the realities of hospice care. In one video, about the use of morphine at the end of life, an exasperated Hawkins appeals to the camera and feigns anger at a family who wants to withhold morphine from a dying loved one out of fear that they’ll become addicted. “They’re suffering and they’re dying,” Hawkins’s caption reads. “Addiction is the least of their worries.” Hawkins told me hospice patients aren’t typically at risk of developing an addiction, because many of them are not in end-of-life care long enough to become addicted (for instance, the median length of stay for Medicare recipients in hospice is about 18 days). As uncomfortable and dark as the video may be, it underscores Hawkins’s overall message that learning more about dying bodies and end-of-life care can only help.

Beyond the medical aspects of death and dying, some videos also warn people about one of the largest hurdles after a loved one’s passing: logistics. Lauren Taylor, a 28-year-old former funeral director who lives in Florida, shares farcical family stories on TikTok—such as a quarrel between a mistress and a wife over the burial of a shared lover—to make the point that planning is key. “Being preplanned, having everything written down ahead of time, and letting others know what your wishes are is so important,” she told me over the phone. Taylor, who asked to use her maiden name to protect her family's privacy, has more than 400,000 followers on her account, @lovee.miss.lauren, and said she has witnessed how traumatic unplanned funerals can be for families and wants to inspire forethought. “These comedic situations where you kind of wonder, Is this real? It happens more often than people think,” she said. “It can be comical to talk about after the fact, but when you’re living in the moment, it’s the most stressful thing ever.”

While DeathTok has been a useful tool for families navigating their relatives’ mortality, it’s also helped death workers themselves cope with the demands of their job. Julie McFadden, a 39-year-old hospice nurse in California, told me that of her close-to-700,000 followers, her fellow medics are the loudest voices in her comments section. “Any of my videos that are more dark, that could be slightly offensive to some, I’m always 100 percent supported by nurses,” she said. In one video, she recounts the time she noticed that a patient was dead even though the rest of their family did not (set to the audio of a person screaming “Don’t worry!” in a panicked tone). The clip spurred other nurses to share similar stories, and one thanked her for her “positive outlook” on such difficult situations. McFadden told me that though nurses are taught how to care for and save patients, many aren’t coached on how to handle death psychologically. “As a community, it’s nice to come together and make light of the things we know are messed up,” she said. “What else are we going to do if we don’t laugh about it?”

When death workers make these short, funny videos, they provide more than just comfort to their colleagues or the bereaved. Their TikToks can be soothing even for patients dealing with a terminal diagnosis. Val Currie, a 32-year-old undergoing treatment for Stage 3 recurrent metastatic cancer, told me that DeathTok provides a much-needed release, and has helped her have discussions with her partner about end-of-life care. “I’m learning to laugh at the process,” she said. If viewers can laugh at death, then they can talk about it. And if they can talk about it, healing may not be too far behind.