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.”
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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.”