TREND: DYING WELL
Exploring death becomes part of living a mentally well life
From death cafes to death fests: A hunger to just talk about it
If modern culture is the first to pathologize any interest in death, now there are many more places and platforms to finally come together and have a real conversation about it. So many blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels explore all aspects of death, such as young, LA-based, celebrity mortician Caitlin Doughty’s no holds barred YouTube series Ask a Mortician, which dives into things such as how corpses decompose and attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers. There are many events, such as Doughty’s “death acceptance collective”; The Order of the Good Death (whose mostly millennial members are academics, artists, funeral industry professionals, etc.), which hosts a number of events around the world such as Death Salons that explore ways to “prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality”; or the weeklong Reimagine End of Life Festivals held in NYC and San Francisco, with hundreds of workshops, performances and exhibits all exploring death. More cemeteries are becoming places of both fun social gathering and death exploration. For example, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn hosts cocktail parties, performances, moonlit tours and yoga classes and is home to Morbid Anatomy, which hosts art exhibits, lectures and conversations on how death and culture intersect.
And nothing is more globally accessible than Death Cafes, a formal movement forged in London in 2011 in the basement of the home of a man named Jon Underwood, who created the concept of people coming together to drink tea, eat cake, and talk pointedly about all things death and dying. Underwood created a website and guidelines for productive discussions, and now there have been over 7,500 death cafes held in 63 countries—from big cities to rural New Zealand and Senegal. People gather in restaurants and other spaces (they’re typically free, and there’s always food and drink) to talk openly about everything they want to about death and dying: from what it’s like to experience to confronting our fear of it to funeral options. Attendees report there’s always much laughter…that sure sign of catharsis and relief. Visit deathcafe.com to find the nearest to you.
Exploring death becomes part of a healthy life
Experts agree that denying death causes serious mental issues, and when we bury it, it doesn’t stay put. For instance, Shelden Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski have made careers out of studying what death awareness does to our behavior and mental wellness, and in over 600 lab experiments, they’ve found that reminders of death affect almost everything. In a 2018 interview at Vice, they summarized their findings: “Our research has shown that (repressed death anxiety) manifests in a variety of unfortunate ways. Everything from hating people who are different to voting for people who say that they’re uniquely capable of ridding the world of evil to pissing on the environment to wanting to buy more stupid stuff.” They argue that practicing acknowledging that we’ll die…makes us better people and more grateful for our experiences. Dr. Deepak Chopra has argued that the fear of death is one of the greatest forms of stress hurting human health and that understanding our inevitable death is as critical to wellbeing as good sleep, nutrition, meditation and yoga. (The wellness guru recently noted that he’s “obsessed with death these days.”) Almost every philosophical and spiritual tradition instructs that thinking regularly about death makes us fear it less and is one of the greatest strategies for living a more authentic, meaningful life, where more joy is extracted out of every day we have. Or, as Allison Arieff of The New York Times just put it: “Our humanity—our humanness—is inextricably intertwined with the fact of our mortality. And no scientific fountain of youth can ever cause that to change.”
Actively exploring death and working on one’s fear of it is becoming a wellness practice for more people—and many more classes and events are launching to help. At NYC’s Art of Dying Institute, experts lead workshops (for everyone from doctors to death doulas but also for the general public) on an amazing series of holistic approaches for understanding death. In Los Angeles, the Sacred Crossings Institute for Conscious Dying offers death exploration classes not only for care professionals but also for anyone that wants new tools to help with death anxiety—from practices such as the life review and guided meditation-based “death rehearsals.” At the Reimagine End of Life Festivals, immersive experiences that meld art and death are offered, from being invited into a phone booth to have the conversations you wish you had had with someone you lost to role-playing in a fictional bereavement group. Given the almost complete denial of death, especially in the West, there is little fear that we will become obsessed, melancholy goths who can’t stop trolling graveyards, and the goal in training is to achieve a balance between death acceptance and happy living.
Seeking death wisdom from other cultures
Some people find wisdom about death in the religious traditions they’re born to. But with more people adopting a hybrid spiritual identity and seeing their life as a constant, fluid soul-seeking, they are actively exploring the practices around death from other cultures, past and present. Just opening your mind to how incredibly different cultures of death are around the world is therapy itself. That’s the point of Caitlin Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death, which journeys around the world, from Indonesia to Bolivia, to intimately experience rituals that may at first seem wildly foreign to us, such as children sharing beds with their mummified grandfathers or experiencing an open-air funeral pyre in Colorado. Or check out the blog Morbid Anatomy, devoted to the wildly diverse ways that cultures around the world experience and represent death.
For many people, Buddhist traditions around death hold a special fascination and pull because the profound awareness of death and the acceptance of impermanence (anicca)—the idea that nothing is forever and change is the only certainty—is at the very core. More people are turning to Buddhist instruction, which asks you to meditate on death and impermanence as a powerful corrective to our blinkered concern with our small and often small-minded life. The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care takes a Buddhist approach to death and provides so much programming: from training doctors, nurses and caregivers in contemplative end-of-life care to bereavement groups helping people mourn the accepting Buddhist way to daily Zen and meditation training for all. (Training can include guided meditations that involve you, step by step, imagining your own death.) More people are exploring Tibetan Buddhism, which places an exceptionally strong focus on instructions concerning death and its acceptance. Helpful shortcuts include reading the best seller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Bhutanese death traditions are brought to your smartphone with the WeCroak app, which randomly pings you five times a day, reminding you that you’re going to die because meditating on death five times a day in Bhutanese tradition is a path to happiness. (What a tonic during conference calls.)
More people will travel to immerse themselves in cross-cultural death traditions and experiences, a kind of “death acceptance tourism” if you will, whether to Mexico to experience the three-day Day of the Dead celebrations, where the dead are temporarily welcomed back into their families, or to the spiritual capital of Hinduism in Varanasi, India, where millions of Indians travel to die and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges (to achieve liberation from reincarnation and to pass to nirvana). Any visitor to this most holy city is immersed in an extraordinary public, intense and beautiful culture of death that forces people from more squeamish cultures to confront the reality of death and really think. (If you want an example of transformational travel, look no further.)
The death-accepting ancient Stoics are trending
Stoicism, a philosophical tradition with roots in ancient Athens but popularized in ancient Rome by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca, is attracting serious interest as a set of practices to live well by today. We use “stoic” casually to mean patient suffering, but Stoic philosophy is actually a set of life practices that involve constant acknowledgment that most things are beyond our control except the control of our minds and that trains us how to achieve calm indifference toward chaotic, cruel, frustrating and uncertain external life (how fitting for our time now). Stoicism has been described as the original “self-help” book and “Buddhism with an attitude,” and it’s majorly trending, with new books, online communities, conferences and workshops as well as being the hot mental wellness approach among Silicon Valley execs, entrepreneurs, elite athletes and politicians. (It’s somehow taken on a masculine vibe, when, of course, it’s a for-everybody philosophy.)
At the core of Stoicism is acceptance of—and strategies for managing the fear of—death. While we could never summarize the richness of these ancient thinkers’ meditations on death here, the point is that a Stoic confronts the inevitability of death constantly, meditating on it in a practice called “memento mori,” which involves a “death rehearsal” or actively contemplating your own death and the death of your loved ones daily. You meditate on the vastness of the universe and past and future time to put your own short life and coming death in context. You journal intensely to balance your life’s books each day. You regularly simulate in your mind what you most fear. Their point: These practices not only prepare us for death, but they also make us better people. As Epictetus argued,” Keep death before your eyes each day…and you’ll never have a base thought or excessive desire.”
Stoicism is very much a mental wellness practice, and it makes you wonder why the wellness world is so narrowly focused on ancient Eastern traditions while seeming so blind to ancient Western ones. You can read Epictetus’s classic treatise The Handbook or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is The Way to dig in. Both are short and accessible, or try How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci. Sign up online for The Daily Stoic if you want a free, seven-day dive into Stoic teachings.
Psychic mediums & spirit guides are having a moment
We would be remiss not to mention how a new age of mediums, whose purpose is to bring people messages and guidance from their departed family and friends (their “spirit guides”), is very, very much a thing. Mediums, such as Tyler Henry, Laura Lynne Jackson or Erica Korman, are the new wellness gurus, and they’re leading group, connect-with-the-dead happenings in cities all over. And whether you’re a believer or not, anyone that has experienced them will likely feel that they function as a kind of empathic group therapy where people work out unresolved issues with those who are gone and collectively explore loss and death. Because these “new mediums” have had a starring role at Goop conferences (Goop’s website has an entire section on death and wellness), they have been eviscerated by some corners of the media as an example of the wellness world exploiting and commodifying death. But rather than snarkily dismissing the phenomenon, it obviously expresses some real need. After all, famed French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life wrote: “The…most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social,” and the new spirit-guide-summoning medium experiences evidence a hunger to make sense of our beloveds’ deaths and to hash it out as a community. And the world—and the wellness world—should ponder hard why the most passionately sought-after (yes, trendy) wellness experiences right now involve the “switching on” of belief—whether shamans or crystals or mediums.
Forecasting the Future
- Experts agree that denying death causes serious mental issues, and when we bury it, it doesn’t stay put. Our pathologically death-fearing culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, so the death-positive movement will only keep rising as a corrective backlash. And because millennials and Gen Z are big drivers of the movement, it should have staying power.
- Because fewer people worldwide are now tied to a formal religion, more are embracing a “hybrid” spirituality and are dramatically more open to exploring the wisdom/practices around death from diverse cultures.
- Both the medical and wellness worlds have been complicit in creating our culture where death is hidden and feared. The future: more wellness centers/destinations and more medical/mental health organizations offering programming and experiences to help people explore death in a healthy way.
This is an excerpt from the “Dying Well” trend in the 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report.