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YOLO: Why being ‘death positive’ can be good for you

From taboo to timely topic, and linked to sex positivity, the death positivity movement is normalising this human inevitability so we can live life to the fullest

Back in 2017, Uncut Gems actress Julia Fox staged her own funeral. Featuring canvases painted with her own blood, the art show, which was dubbed “RIP Julia Fox” and curated by Richie Shazam, was meant to acknowledge the next chapter in her life, according to Refinery 29

The instance is just one of several cultural happenings that have been bringing conversations about death out from the shadows and into the public. In Ghana, for example, a craftsman named Joseph Tetteh Ashong has been making custom, sought-after casket designs inspired by fashion, such as an Air Jordan sneaker and a Louis Vuitton x Supreme bag. While in Sweden, death cleaning is encouraging people to live with less stuff and have conversations about loss that are not meant to be sad. Grief gatherings and dinner parties are also popping up across the globe where strangers meet and talk about death together. 

All of this said, a movement called death positivity is rising and while it may sound morbid at first, it’s actually intended to help you live better. According to Mic, the mission of death positivity is to shift traditional perceptions of death by encouraging a larger dialogue about it. Not only is it supposed to decrease stigma and anxiety about death, especially in a time when the climate crisis is making people feel more angst about their mortality, it is meant to improve our collective wellbeing. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a totally new concept as some cultures recognise death as not only a natural part of life but something that is dignified – for example, Mexico’s annual holiday Día de Muertos celebrates the deceased by creating altars honouring their loved ones among other festivities.

According to Katherine Kortes-Miller, author of Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations, in Western cultures, death is often seen as “something scary and something that we don't know about until we’re thrown into it, be it ourselves at the end of our lives or caring for someone that we love who is at the end of their life.” Due to this, she believes we're not sure how to support each other, making it harder for us to care for people who are dying. 

“The topic of death and dying can be sensitive issues due to the fact that we as a society don’t speak openly about it,” agrees Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW, a therapist based in New York. “For a lot of people, death is a mystery and it’s hard to discuss something that we’ve never experienced. Because of this, it becomes a source of fear and can make you feel uncomfortable.” Death positivity is breaking down the walls and bringing some much-needed lightness to the seemingly heavy topic. 

Interestingly, death positivity has also been linked with sex positivity. How are they connected? Both sex and death are largely seen as taboo topics because society has isolated us from them, making us feel emotions like avoidance, shame, and as mentioned fear when, in reality, these things are natural parts of life. But when we recognise this, it can help us put things in perspective and establish a more mindful approach. “What we’ve seen in society with topics that are difficult to discuss, is that when we bring them out of the closet and we move from not just normalisation but to socialisation, they can really support us in living life to the fullest,” explains Kortes-Miller, who also teaches at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.

“Both sex and death are largely seen as taboo topics because society has isolated us from them, making us feel emotions like avoidance, shame, and fear when, in reality, these things are natural parts of life. But when we recognise this, it can help us put things in perspective and establish a more mindful approach”

According to Mic, a tweet by Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, first established the connection between death and sex positivity due to the ways they both focus on choice. “(Death positivity) advocates supporting people regardless of how they choose to die, whether it involves a green burial or aggressive medical treatments,” Jillian Tullis, an educator at the University of San Diego, told the publication. Tullis and Mic also raised an important point – that for marginalised communities have historically received worse healthcare than white people so they may navigate death differently or have a harder time discussing it.

“I worked on a hospice unit for many years and I never once met somebody literally on their deathbed who said, ‘I really wish I’d kept my house more clean,’” Kortes-Miller continues. “But what I did hear was that many people had regrets about relationships, many people wished that they had loved harder, that they had given back to their community, that they had had more adventure, that they took different risks, that they’d said things to people.”

According to Kortes-Miller, these are the things that we tend to regret or not prioritise while we’re still living when we don’t consider our eventual fate. “Our connection with people is what matters,” she says. “If we recognise that earlier on in life and we spend some time thinking about what is it that’s gonna matter to us as we face the end of our life or when we are saying goodbye to somebody that we love at the end of their life, that's going to help us more today.” With this, death positivity can help us live our lives to the fullest and consider how we want to be remembered or what our legacy might look like after we die.

There’s also the practical side of it. The author and educator says that death positivity can help increase people’s death literacy so they spend time thinking about necessary things like navigating the healthcare system, arranging their wills, and burial plans. By being more prepared and opening up the conversation, this will decrease our anxiety about death. 

Additionally, as many millennials have watched their parents tiptoe around death, many want to approach it differently, she says. The Farewell, a 2019 film starring Awkwafina, captures this sentiment as the main character Billi returns home to China because her grandmother is sick. Growing frustrated that her parents won’t tell her “Nai Nai” the truth, the movie highlights the tension between younger and older views on dying.

Beecroft believes people should be cautious about the context of this topic as it can be triggering for some people who have experienced death and grief in their lives. Therefore, being able to recognise when it is appropriate to discuss is significant in order to prevent ourselves from doing more harm. Furthermore, it’s important to consider that speaking about death and dying can be a symptom of someone who is suicidal or having suicidal ideation. ”In this instance, we also need to be able to provide support and be able to assess the situation to know how to proceed so this topic isn’t detrimental to someone else’s wellbeing,” she offers.

Ultimately, how might a positive outlook on death improve our wellbeing? “It can help us feel less fearful of the future and less avoidant of discussing these topics,” Beecroft concludes.  Over time, we will become less scared of the unfamiliar and more prepared for something that is inevitable, allowing us to properly plan for it. “It will also teach us to be able to better support those who are struggling with this topic by getting a better understanding of why they are struggling with it to begin with.”