Through discussions, salons, and art, feminists are redefining culture’s broken relationship with mortality
It's said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Yet, as a whole, society is overwhelmingly death phobic. The silence surrounding death means it's often dealt with behind closed doors, left to professionals and sanitised in contemporary culture.
To revolutionise the way we handle death, alternative mortician Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death in 2011. Her candid YouTube series Ask a Mortician, in which she answers viewers' questions as to how to discuss death with children, and whether corpses defecate, has been viewed tens of thousands of times. The series' success was further proof that humans are curious about death, and she formed a collective of professionals, academics, and artists to challenge and redefine culture's broken relationship with mortality. The Order's mission was to make open and realistic discussions of death part of popular culture.
One of Caitlin's aims is to reform Western funeral industry practices. She offers natural burials: the interment of a corpse in the ground without a casket or embalming, allowing it to naturally decompose. Family-led care of the dead is another of her services, and she also advises on progressive death technologies like 'bio-cremation' - an environmentally-friendly process using water and potassium hydroxide that reduces a body to bone ash.
Through discussions, salons, and innovative art, death positivity as a movement was born – but what is the message? That engaging with our inevitable deaths isn't morbid, rather part of human curiosity. It was during a Death Salon event that museum curator and executive director of The Order, Sarah Troop, noticed the majority of those backing the movement identified as female. With Lucy Coleman Talbot, an expert in death, religion and culture, she co-founded Death & The Maiden – a project to explore the cultural and historical roles women have played, and continue to play, in death.
“We've had our bodies subject to rules and laws created by men for centuries, it is a feminist act to have the final say over what happens to your corpse when you die” – Sarah Troop
“Our initial goal was to create a space of exploration by examining the relationship between women and death, by sharing ideas and work of others – particularly women and non-binary folks – who are actively working with and studying death,” Sarah tells me. “We hoped this would create a platform for discussion and feminist narratives that we were not seeing portrayed in the media about female death professionals and those involved in the movement.”
“It was not only important to us to amplify the voices of those actively creating the future of death, but also address the issues many women are facing who are confronted with the reality of 'bad deaths' such as femicide, victims of police brutality, reproductive rights and so much more.”
While the modern stereotypical image of a funeral director is male, end-of-life care was traditionally seen as “feminine work”. Women played a pivotal role in caring for the dead until it became seen as a business, and male “professionals” took over.
Now death positivity is on the rise, it's women like Sarah, Lucy, and Caitlin who are at the forefront. According to the National Association of Funeral Directors, women now make up 60 per cent of mortuary school students. In an Ask a Mortician video, Caitlin confirms that “women are entering the funeral industry at an unprecedented rate.”
For many women though, their relationship with death is forced on them through misogynist views of end-of-life care. Some critics claim women are naturally “caring” and “nurturing” creatures, and therefore gravitate towards work that involves comforting grieving families. Another popular explanation rooted in sexism is that the job requires less scientific knowledge nowadays, meaning more women qualify. Sarah contests this view, stating women in this case are “reduced to familiar and harmful stereotypes.” She adds, “Our very existence demands that we acknowledge it. We cannot be unconcerned with death – that privilege is not ours.”
Sarah argues that “women and non-binary folk” are often forced to confront death in ways most men are not. “Murders of trans women of colour, indigenous women in Canada, women in Mexico and El Salvador, and death at the hands of our domestic partners are so common that they are now deemed 'epidemics' by experts,” she explains. Women, it seems, are usually responsible for the care of their elderly relatives, and the long history of women's reproductive rights can be connected to death, too.
It makes sense, then, that women are the driving force behind the movement. Whether those involved see death positivity as a way to reclaim their bodies, space and lives, or an act of resistance – it's undoubtedly empowering. “We've had our bodies subject to rules and laws created by men for centuries, it is a feminist act to have the final say over what happens to your corpse when you die,” Sarah tells me. “There are so many things you can do – you can prolong another's life through organ donation, be made into a diamond or a firework, or educate future medical and science students by donating your body. Don't let someone else decide what your final act on this earth will be – die as you lived.”