What Is Death Positivity?

We hear so much today about a “movement” called Death Positivity. As a funeral director, I couldn’t tell someone what that means. Once we are born, we all move toward death. It’s just a matter of when and how. It’s also a concept that some people have a hard time wrapping their head around. Being positive about anything that causes pain to not only ourselves but those we love is difficult to understand.

So, what does this mean in simple language? A number of websites discuss this concept. One calls for individuals to boldly state their support of the movement by signing their name to a page on a website. Others discuss Death Cafes, a European innovation to openly discuss death. One article states death can be “fun.” Describing an after-party of lecture on death positivity that had tarot card readings, palm readings and an insect petting zoo. And today there is even an app, WeCroak, to help remind you five times a day that you are dying. Too many times we see death depicted as a goth or ghoulish movement, something that brings to mind the Addams Family without its satiric humor. Clearly death is none of that. It is deep, it is emotional, it is personal, it is painful and, yes, it should be taken reverently.

In 2007, PBS aired a program called The Undertaking. It featured well respected author and poet AND funeral director, Thomas Lynch and his family owned funeral home. This program really was the beginning of introducing death, dying, and the funeral trade, as Lynch calls it, to a larger audience. His book, The Undertaking: Life Studies From A Dismal Trade, openly discusses what takes place within grieving families at his funeral home. A quote from the program website states “The Lynch family believes that the rituals of a funeral are more than mere formalities. Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters, Lynch contends. A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”

That last sentence, “a good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and living where they need to be” is so important. Our American culture toward death has changed. It has evolved from the days of the Civil War, and that is expected. Our traditions and rituals surrounding death and funerals have changed. It’s hard to pinpoint when this happened. Many people now say we are a death denying culture. I feel that’s not true, it’s present every day, in our faces in every form of media. What I see is that more people do not believe they can die in the blink of an eye. We think that not seeing the deceased (it doesn’t matter whether it’s at home or a funeral home) removes death from us. It doesn’t. Many families have started choosing direct cremation, or immediate burial, which removes the deceased from the view of family and friends. Thus, denying them the opportunity to say good-bye and grieve with others. While the options for coming face to face with death, by viewing the deceased, are there we are seeing more families not choosing them. As funeral directors, we have to learn why so that we’ll know what we can do to make it easier for people to embrace the opportunity to see a loved one (family, friend, or co-worker), one last time.

In the meantime, we should reinforce the need to educate people as to why thinking about our own (or a family member’s death) is a positive thing. There is much to be considered around end of life wishes, along with preferences that extend beyond final arrangements. We should choose how we want to die, and how we want to be memorialized. It also helps those left behind to make that happen. We should be asking, “What we can do to prepare for that eventuality? We have to start somewhere and at the end is a good place to do that.

Honoring Memorial Day

Gettysburg Address

During the early days of the Civil War, it became apparent that there was a need to identify and develop space for cemeteries to honor those who fought for their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice. On July 17, 1862 Congress authorized the President to purchase cemetery grounds “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” Fourteen cemeteries were established in that first year.

In what is considered to be one of President Abraham Lincoln’s monumental acts, the Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long but is still remembered and quoted today. President Lincoln gave this speech at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) on November 19, 1863. His dedication to those buried there set the tone for Memorial Day remembrances of the future.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Memorial Day was officially established by an order of John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868. “The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

Today, the best known of these is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is the eternal home of more than 400,000 deceased soldiers and American dignitaries is visited by nearly four million people each year. The Old Guard perform a 24/7/365 vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a moving experience to observe the hourly changing of the guard.

Today, there are a total of 147 cemeteries within the National Cemetery System (including those outside the continental United States) with 4.1 million burials or inurnment of cremated remains.

On this Memorial Day let us say thank you to those who have served our country and pray for those who are no longer with us.

The Gratification of Visiting Graves

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In 2004, I traveled to Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery to do research for an article I was working on about the place. My trip there was also a pilgrimage of sorts, as the first monument I wanted to see was that of Gone With The Wind author, Margaret Mitchell. As a teen, I had read –and reread—the lengthy novel, enthralled by the tempestuous romance between the fiery beauty, Scarlett O’Hara, and her dashing suitor, Rhett Butler. Mitchell, I soon learned, was more than the author of one of the most lauded books of all time (as if that were not enough), but also a widely-read journalist who had worked for the Atlanta Journal. As a respected writer, she became a role model for me.

As I neared Mitchell’s grave site, I could see her family name, Marsh, prominently etched into the monument. There was no mention of the literary legend she had been. As I knelt before the stone, to lay flowers at her grave, I reached out a hand to trace the letters of her name. Tears welled in my eyes. Mitchell had never seemed as real to me as she did at that moment. The monument was Mitchell’s legacy in tangible form. She was no longer just a name in print. I still count that as one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was a grave site experience shared by countless others who have visited the graves of those they love and admire.

Recently, a friend shared a similar story with me. He told of the satisfaction of traveling to a military cemetery in the Philippines to visit the grave of his uncle. It had been a “lifelong quest” for him. Like my friend, I long to visit the graves of those who meant much in my life. My first fiancé, and my 6th grade teacher are on that list, and a visit to their graves would be a way of saying that to them. So far, I have been unable to locate them. But I am on a mission.

We’d love to hear your own stories about visiting graves. Please share them in the comments section.

The “Creep Factor”

In addition to this site, Melissa and I host a Facebook page for The Morte Girls. This group was created as a place for serious funeral directors to come together to discuss issues with colleagues. We invited some of the best licensed funeral directors we knew, intentionally keeping the group small and manageable to avoid what so many of the other Facebook funeral director groups have become: a place for the morbidly curious. Recently, a young woman requested to join. She claimed to have attended a mortuary school, but it was unclear whether or not she had ever become licensed (one can only hope not). Among her likes: death, murder, horror movies, and snakes. Just one more in  a string of inappropriate requests from those looking for the “creep factor.”

Unfortunately, we see these types all over social media these days. Facebook, Instagram, and even Twitter are littered with those who believe funeral service is a 24/7 Gothfest.  They enroll in mortuary schools around the country for their chance to be near the dead, despite the fact that funeral service is mainly about working with the living.

Each and every time the Press reinforces the “creep factor” with their sensational coverage of those on the fringe, the conversations seem to grow more inane. A recent Instagram post had a young mother asking whether or not a tee shirt with the words “future corpse” came in a onesie for her newborn baby. Just days later, I was bringing a colleague (who eschews social media) up to speed, and mentioned the tee shirt. She told me how she had handled the funeral of a newborn baby who had a surviving twin. “Just think, ” she said, shaking her head with disgust, “about how amusing the mother of that baby, having lost one child already, would find this tee shirt.”

RIP Lt. Chistopher Raguso & Michael Davidson

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In the month of March, the funerals of two New York firefighters took place just days apart. Michael Davidson, 37, lost his life while battling a blaze in a NYC apartment building. Lt. Christopher Raguso was killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq, one day after his 39th birthday. As I read about, and watched the coverage of the funerals of both men, I could not help but think that there could be no better example of why funerals serve a vital purpose. The naysayers may believe that funerals don’t matter, but by all accounts they mattered a great deal to not only the family and friends of these brave men, but to their colleagues and the community at large. Although hearts were heavy, there was no mistaking how the comforting funeral rituals brought together and enveloped mourners. We would all do well to take a lesson from such public funerals before we go believing the media hype about the demise of funeral service.

FDNY’s Michael Davidson     Lt. Christopher Raguso

The Journey Begins

Melissa Johnson Williams and Alexandra Kathryn Mosca are two well-known and respected names in funeral service.

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