Claire has a terminal illness.
Today she wrote me an email to say she finds the tone of the Order of the Good Death offensive, because she herself does not find anything about the process of dying amusing. This is understandable, as death & dying can be a very lonely, bleak, awful place.
She went on to say that no one should be speaking publicly about dying unless “you know firsthand of what you speak.” Her implication was that I should not be allowed to talk about dying unless I myself am actually dying.
In a way, I would argue that we’re all dying. I may not have a disease that will kill me within the next 6 months, but we—you, me, every one of us—is dying. Our incurable disease is being alive. The knowledge that we WILL inevitably die influences every decision that we make. Our relationship with death is the most important one we’ll ever have. To wait until we are actually dying to acknowledge that relationship is to deny a large part of ourselves.
This past weekend we put on an event in Los Angeles called Death Salon. It was a group of death academics and scholars, funeral and hospice professionals, gathered to have panels and public events on death. This week there was an article about Death Salon in The Atlantic.
Sure, Internet 101 is never read the comments. Lesson 1: Here is your computer’s “on” button. Lesson 2: For fuck’s sake, don’t read the comments.
But I did, of course, because it’s like a horrific car accident you can’t look away from.
They ranged from the truly ridiculous: “What you’re saying is that more and more people in this new ‘death culture’ really want to become zombies, or vampires, Nosferatu, the undead. I mean, that’s what they’re aiming for, right?”
You got it, dude. At last our twisted plot to transform the whole lot of us into li’l Klaus Kinskis is revealed!
To comments like this: “One gains access to an awareness of one’s own mortality only via a life-threatening event or becoming elderly. The 20/30-somethings are just fooling themselves.”
Or: “anybody who claims to be confronting [death] whilst…referring to herself as a “macabre nerd” is fooling herself.”
These are two different commenters, using the phrase “fooling themselves” to describe the younger generation’s attempt to improve its relationship with death.
So unless you’re a) dying, b) elderly, or c) facing a life-threatening event, death & mortality are not for you to speak of. This is what upsets me about The Atlantic comments and the email from Claire. The self-satisfied tone that says to anyone who is exploring their mortality: “DEATH IS NOT FOR YOU, O CURIOUS AND HOPELESSLY UNQUALIFIED* ONE.”
* “Unqualified” based on my own arbitrary standards.
Death culture, death practices & rituals, and the physical act of dying are just as diverse as humans themselves. The corpse rainbow is a coat of many colors (that metaphor went off the rails somewhere, apologies).
Death is not a fad. Talking about mortality is not a trend piece like artisanal pickles or hand-carved charcuterie boards. It’s not something that “hipsters” are doing now. It is the fundamental core of the human experience. And to say that people in their 20s and 30s (there were many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s at Death Salon, too, by the way) could “never understand” or are unequipped to discuss it is ludicrous.
If we do not discuss it, are we not doomed to repeat the mistakes of Western death culture of the last 75 years? The denial, the disconnect with grief and the dead body, a medical system that intervenes at all costs, regardless of the quality of remaining life or death the person can expect to have. The stakes for our future relationship with death are not small. We need all the conversations about mortality we can get, old & young, black & white, hip & square.