It is likely that in the year 2015, you know someone involved in the death industry. You may have a friend going to school for funeral services or have an embalmer or mortician in your circle of acquaintances. If you don’t know anyone involved in the eternally bustling business of death, it is possible that you know someone – a relative, an ex, a wretched high school Algebra teacher – who has passed away. And if not that, you are all too keenly aware of your own mortality and have spent no small amount of time fretting about the idea that yep, you’re gonna die one day.
Perhaps it is this last, irrefutable fact that is so integral to the revival that the hitherto taboo topic of death is experiencing of late. As evidenced by the popularity of New York Times best-selling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by mortician Caitlin Doughty, people are ready to start challenging their fears and misconceptions, move past their death anxieties to death acceptance, and connect with others who are doing the same.
Or they are at least ready to start reading about it!
Nonetheless, this “Death Positive” movement is being embraced by those who would hope to explore their relationship with death socially, culturally, and – most importantly – on a personal level.
I had the opportunity to speak with five women passionately involved in this vital conversation; women who seek to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing, and ultimately, life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death” to The Order of the Good Death and The Death Salon – we invite you to read further, learn much, and meet the new faces of Death.
Sarah Chavez is a museum curator and historian who writes and recreates historical and cultural recipes for her blog, Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion, and society. She is also co-founder of Death & the Maiden, which explores the relationship between women and death by sharing ideas and creating a platform for discussion and feminist narratives. She is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death and serves as the Social Media Editor for Death Salon. Sarah is also an author and advocate for improved care and support of families experiencing infant and child death and was a contributing author to the companion book for the Emmy nominated film, Return to Zero.
S. Elizabeth at Unquiet Things: How did you become interested in death, and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry and as a death-positive activist?
Sarah Chavez: As a Mexican-American I was fortunate enough to be exposed to very death-positive attitudes. My Grandmother, who is very vivacious, speaks about death frequently and planned her funeral early. For years she has told me what songs she wants played or what color limo she should rent for the family to ride in, exclaiming, “It will be such fun! Darn it, I’m going to miss it!”
I spent my childhood on sound stages watching countless deaths being meticulously created over and over again. When an actual death occurred on a set my father was working on, it completely altered everything. Observing the subsequent aftermath of this incident revealed a lot to me about the strange lack of relationship we have with death and dying. It was only reinforced more throughout childhood, and as an adult, when my questions and interest in death and dying were consistently met with negative, uncomfortable responses.
When I began working professionally with history, death was something I could explore in a more socially acceptable way. Although much of my work is solitary research, a large part of it was also sharing that research with the public in an accessible, entertaining manner through public engagement events and through social media. It was through social media that I – and so many others working with death – were able to connect, which led to what I’m doing today.
What drew you to your particular profession?
When I see people or objects, or even a street corner, they have fascinating, hidden stories to tell – and I want to know what they are! My love of history was actually sparked by culinary history. There was a cookbook in our house that recipes with the origin stories of each dish, which I find fascinating.
With my food and death research I am working to tie the historical and cultural research (the past), to practical ways we can use food to honor death, dying, mourning, and memory (present and future). In writing about history, being a museum curator, and working with the Order of the Good Death and Death Salon, it allows me to do everything I love and work with the most amazing individuals.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
Helping and comforting someone is what I hope to accomplish the most and there’s a big part of me that likes to provoke and challenge people intellectually and emotionally. I put a lot of thought and care into what I choose to share on social media. I posted a piece that elicited a response from a man whose parent had died. He and his family were carrying around guilt and confusion about the death, but after reading that piece he understood his experience was normal and not his fault. He could finally come to an understanding and be at peace with what happened. I see responses like that quite a bit. If I can help people, support them or even teach them something, that is most important.
As for Death & the Maiden, which I created with the wonderful Lucy Talbot, it explores the large role women are currently playing in death care. A large part of our intention was to provide an inclusive space to highlight the work and experiences of those individuals, (female, genderqueer, non-binary) but also as a place to inspire.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your job, and to a larger extent, the death industry in general? What do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
In my museum work, and I think this is in small part a symptom of location, it’s that a woman is not capable.
As for the death stuff, people are often confused at first. Death is something everyone experiences yet, they know nothing about it. I can’t tell you how many jaws I’ve seen drop when I say something like, “Embalming is not a legal requirement.”
The issue that seems to cause the most strife is the way we handle grief in our culture and the lack of ritual. People are rushed through the process and told to move on. Consequently, grieving people are forced to hide how they feel and are isolated in their experience of loss, just when they need love and support the most.
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, macabre, morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation?
Really, everyone loves a good story so I use that to my advantage; by contextualizing death in telling the story behind an artifact, a favorite food, a piece of clothing, or a person, I can tie death into pretty much anything. Through the story I can evoke empathy or emotion and once you’ve tapped into that, people are pretty open.
What I find often is that people desperately want to talk about death. I am often taken aside and pulled into quiet corners where I become a sort of vessel for people to pour their fears and curiosity into.
Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?
There is no death community where I am currently living, so I’ve tried to create opportunities for conversations or experiences myself. I slip in death-themed stuff at the museum whenever I can. Last year I created a school program where I talked about the pioneer experience of children their age including deaths along the way, how would they deal with the corpses, things like that. I also created a hands-on Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit for kids with bones, taxidermy specimens, biological specimens, some Victorian mourning jewelry. This creates an opportunity for kids to experience and talk about death.
What is your role within the Order of the Good Death, and can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about at October’s Death Salon?
My day-to-day role is a supportive one: answering emails, handling social media, promoting the work of fellow Order members – a lot of little things like that, but I also get to be creative. I help generate content for the Order blog or do research for videos, which is a lot of fun for me.
For Death Salon: Mütter Museum, I wanted to explore what happens when one of the most death positive cultures in the world deals with one of the most tragic events imaginable – the death of a child. I encountered this practice for the first time while I was in Mexico doing research, not long after the loss of my own child.
It is believed that when a child dies before the age of 7, they transform into a supernatural being – a sort of hybrid between a saint and an angel called an angelito. The child then acts as a mediator between the living family and God. Family, friends, and neighbors all gather to celebrate the child and surround the family with love and support for the next 24 to 48 hours with food, drinks, and fireworks that accompany the child’s ascent to heaven.
Although I don’t hold the same beliefs, after researching and learning about the angelito rituals, I felt comforted and understood by my ancestors. In Mexico, I was surrounded by representations of death – in music, art, food, conversation – my loss was acknowledged, and I did not feel the need to hide my grief or feel guilt for upsetting others as I do here in the US. That is something I want to change – this culture of silence, which is why I am finally sharing my story. In my small way, I too, am breaking that silence.
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death and dying and allay our death anxiety?
This is work that each individual must take up of their own accord. Read, meditate, talk, engage with life. Death is so much a part of life and by engaging with death you will discover ways to live more fully.
The next thing is raising death positive children. Mind you, you cannot do this if you haven’t done the work yourself. Read fairy tales, play outside – these things offer engagement with death on levels children can relate to and readily engage in.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
I’m absolutely fascinated with beliefs and “experiences” of the afterlife. I studied parapsychology through the Rhine Research Center for a couple years, but I don’t believe in an afterlife where our consciousness continues to exist.
However, our corpses have an opportunity for an afterlife. We can advance science, learning, and understanding by donating our bodies to science or continue another’s life through donation of our organs. We can be naturally buried and facilitate new plant growth, be a diamond, part of an ocean reef, or even be a firework! I really encourage people to contemplate, research, and plan for the afterlife of their corpse!
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, as it were?
Painless – and I mean that physically and emotionally. It is important to me that everything is planned and accounted for so there are no questions or burdens on loved ones. Shirley Jackson, my favourite author has written very few books, and I’ve read all but two. I put them aside to read at the end of life, so I have something wonderful to look forward to.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)