How Thinking About Death Became the Ultimate Practice for Living Well

Photo: Getty Images/guvendemir

"Don't forget. You're going to die."

The notification pops up on my phone five times a day. In the middle of checking my email, scrolling through Instagram, or going down a rabbit hole of "the grossest challenges ever attempted on Fear Factor" or "the hottest animated characters of all time," the WeCroak app regularly reminds me of my own impending fate via push notifications.

The app was designed based on the Bhutanese principle that thinking about death five times a day is the key to a happier life. And while it may sound morbid as hell, there's actually some truth to it. "One of the things that makes us unhappy is that we tend to get caught up in things that don't matter. We tend to get caught up in an angry voice or in minutia or in stress or in things that ultimately aren't that important to us, and when we remember our mortality, we can take a deep breath and just go, 'Oh. I don't have to think about this. I don't have to engage. I don't have time for this,' and just move on," the app's co-founder, Hansa Bergwall, told technology business journalist Kara Swisher on a recent episode of her Recode Decode podcast. "It's a little way of making a micro-adjustment so that your whole day—which, remember, is one of your limited days on Earth—isn't taken up with BS."

Meditating on death for the purpose of "bringing joy to life" is also a common practice in the Buddhist faith, which served as the inspiration behind the app. But as I've begun implementing this practice and intention into my own life, I've grappled with the notion of whether a positive relationship with death—and embracing the rituals surrounding this death positive attitude—is actually the key to maximizing a well life.

By speaking with death industry experts about trends and realities, like the rise of the death positivity movement and the increase in popularity of home funerals, green burials, and death doulas, I got some clarity. And it seems like, yes, for the self and loved ones, wellness is inclusive of the entire cycle of life—which indeed includes the very lack of living.

Contemplating death can influence how you live your life

On face value, talking about death is regarded as gauche—and a great way to make other people feel uncomfortable. But, inviting death positivity into your life can also have powerful transformational positive effects. “On the one hand, it can make you aware of how precious life is, because if you realize that life is temporary and that we're only here for a relatively short period of time, as a result, life takes on a new value," says psychologist and spirituality expert Steven Taylor, PhD, author of Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation. "And the people in our lives take on a new value because we realize that their lives are temporary, and they're only going to be here for a short time as well. Essentially everything becomes more valuable, you stop taking life for granted.”

I know that sentiment to be all too true; even before the WeCroak App came into my life six months ago, my relationship with death positivity was evolving. In 2016, my dad died less than eight weeks after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a wake-up call to me about the fragility of life. It pushed me to stop talking about how badly I wanted to travel the world and instead to actually do it. It led me to buy a one-way ticket to Malaysia (and then to 18 countries after that), and it made me feel great about not coming home for the next year and a half. This kind of behavior, Dr. Taylor tells me, is not uncommon. In his book, he writes about a study that he conducted, where the results showed people who had lost loved ones tended to have a more accepting attitude toward death. "In a strange way, they became less fearful of their own death," he says, pointing to a concept called "post-traumatic growth" (which psychologists characterize as a growth from trauma) as the likely cause for this shift. "Through experiencing other people's deaths, it made them less attached to their own life in a strange way."

The death positivity movement isn't new, but it's newly mainstream

It bears mentioning that the death positivity movement isn't new and it isn't just a fleeting trend; it started as a fringe community around 2013, and has made its way into the public conscience. The leader of the movement, mortician Caitlin Doughty, has been written about in the The New Yorker, Vice, and The New York Times, to name just a few. In 2013, The Atlantic declared that "death was having a moment," and six years later an abundance of evidence makes the sentiment feel truer than ever. 

"Death Cafes," a program where people gather to discuss their own mortality, have popped up all over the world, and according to a recent report from Fast Company, it has hosted 8,200 events in 65 countries since 2011—and that's just one of several companies of its kind, like Death Dinner Party, and Death Over Dinner, that gather people to talk about death positivity. And a spokesperson for Eventbrite reported seeing 39 percent more grief-related events—like guided meditation for grief, yoga focused on release of grief and trauma, and grief garden classes—on the platform in the United States in 2018 than in the year prior.

"Death is part of life, and to celebrate and engage with the healing of death is also by nature to engage with life—and celebrating every day that we've got."  —Jeff Jorgenson, funeral director

All of this comes back to the idea that wellness—and living a well life—should be inclusive of a person's entire life. Including the end. "Within the paliative-care movement, the attitude is…that death is a tragedy and we've gotta deal with this tragedy and bring comfort," says Shatzi Weisberger, a former nurse who has embraced death positivity to the point that she hosted a living funeral for herself (otherwise known as a FUN-eral, which was extensively covered by The New York Times). "And the emphasis in hospice is on the art of living, not on the art of dying. The art of living is incredible, and I 1,000 percent support the art of living, but when it's the end of life, what about the art of dying?" Weisberger says that though she doesn't know for sure how she'll feel when the time comes, she intends to be fully awake and aware to experience her own death (which is not common practice in hospice), because it's something she's never done before.

To be clear, this idea of death positivity isn't meant to make any of us feel positive about losing someone—because that f**king sucks, full stop. Rather, it can help us feel less avoidant about our own deaths. "It isn't about celebrating the fact that someone is gone; it's looking at what death is in a more intellectual or abstract way and embracing that part of life," explains Jeff Jorgenson, a Seattle-based funeral director and the founder of Elemental Cremation and Burial. "Death is part of life, and to celebrate and engage with the healing of death is also by nature to engage with life—and celebrating every day that we've got." 

Death positivity is a rising movement in the wellness world
Photo: Getty Images/galitskaya

Enter: The concept of a "good" death

As conversations surrounding dying have started to change around the rise of death positivity, so too has the industry itself. At the 2019 Global Wellness Summit, “Dying Well” emerged as one of one of the trends of the year, and experts called out "exploring death and working on one’s fear of it” an element of living a healthy life. “Everything around dying is getting radically rethought—from making the experience more humane to mourning and funerals getting reimagined,” reads the report. 

And many are starting to agree; increasing numbers of people seeking out "good deaths" as they look toward end-of-life care. Several experts I spoke with pointed out that until the 20th century, death occurred in homes, but in recent history it has become more medicalized and less personal. Now, that's changing: The advent of "death doulas" have helped people move more gracefully through this major life event in the same way traditional doulas do for women giving birth. "We work with people before the last days of life or the labor of dying, just like the labor of birth," says Henry Fersko-Weiss, author of Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death, who created the first end-of-life, in-hospice doula program in the United States in 2003. (Fersko-Weiss isn't aware of any other similar programs that predate his in the world, but notes that people have historically done this work informally within their communities.) He explains that what a death doula does is different than what has traditionally happened in hospice care. "We work beforehand to help design what those last days will look like and feel like for everybody who’s involved. We also do work we call 'summing up' or work on the meaning of the person’s life to help them build a legacy of some kind.

While having a well-laid plan for someone's final days sounds nice in theory, death tends to operate on its own schedule. Even in instances of sudden or unexpected deaths, though, doulas can still be helpful. "I see tremendous value in doing work around the meaning of that person’s life in the lives of those that are left behind—to talk about that person’s legacy, to even create some kind of project that captures in some way the meaning of that person’s life and the impact that they’ve had and what we hope to hold onto and remember," says Fersko-Weiss.

According to a report from Death Over Dinner, the previously mentioned group that hosts conversations about death while attendees share a meal, 75 percent of Americans want to die at home, but only 25 percent actually do. "Obviously when you’re dying in a hospital room, that’s not the place where you lived your life. All of your things in your home are things that you love...and then you end up dying in a sterile hospital room," says Fersko-Weiss, noting that he's seen an uptick in people who opt for a home death. "In all ways, we’re starting to look at death and dying more personally, more intimately, more lovingly," he adds.

Of course, this comes at a cost. Some death doulas work in tandem with hospice services (which are, for the most part, free thanks to insurance and Medicare) to supplement the physical work a hospice aide does with emotional services, while others work independently. There is no regulated rate for death doulas (geography, demand, and a family's particular needs all factor in), but Fersko-Weiss estimates that services likely run between $1,500 and $3,000.

The new frontier of funerals

In addition to end-of-life care, the dying well trend is extending to after-life care, too—more specifically, to funeral practices. Green burials—which usually involve a biodegradable coffin and no embalming fluid in order to make them more environmentally friendly and, in effect, less expensive—are becoming increasingly popular. The exact numbers for how common these are aren't available, but a 2018 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association found that nearly 54 percent of respondents expressed interest in having a green funeral. And in May, Washington became the first state to legalize human composting which involves using alkaline hydrolosis (or "liquid cremation) and is seen to be both the most organic and cost effective way to dispose of a body.

Green burials—usually involving a biodegradable coffin, no embalming fluid in order to make them more environmentally friendly and, in effect, less expensive—are becoming increasingly popular. A 2018 survey found that nearly 54 percent expressed interest in one.

The same survey from the NFDA found that families are seeking more personalized celebrations of loved ones' lives outside traditional memorial and funereal services. "Funeral homes fell out of date," says New York-based funeral director Amy Cunningham, who specializes in green burials, home funerals, and celebrations of life. She says many are turning away from the vibe dark, depressing funeral homes with drawn blinds. "There’s a different aesthetic and feeling of, 'Yeah we’re not hiding from death. We’re not ashamed of death. We want to celebrate a life well lived.'"

Though this all may sound decidedly different from more customary death practices often heavily rooted in religion, death positivity isn't necessarily at odds with traditionalism. "There’s an underlying current in the death wellness movement of honoring what one individually feels and believes in a spiritual way," says Lucinda Herring, an interfaith minister, certified green funeral director, and author of Reimagining Death: Stories and Practical Wisdom for Home Funerals and Green Burials. "There’s not anything that’s in opposition [to religion or religious practices] in the death wellness movement because people are encouraged in the end-of-life plans and legacy creations to say what they really do feel in terms of a spiritual path. Death brings up these eternal questions."

While there are certain elements of the new frontier of death that aren't quite in line with religious teachings (for example, the Catholic church has come out against the practice of alkaline hydrolosis), Herring contends they can coexist.

So how, exactly, does death positivity relate to wellness?

So much of what we talk about surrounding wellness has to do with extending life—from biohacking our diets to investing in anti-aging skin care to obsessively mimicking the practices of the long-living people in the Blue Zones. But isn't "wellness," as a practice, really about maximizing life rather than elongating it?

“How can you live well, and live in the moment, and live your life to the fullest if you're always in fear, and not wanting to think about—or even talk about—the fact that this death is inevitable for all of us?" asks Amy McDonald, owner and CEO of Under a Tree Health and Wellness Consulting, who worked to develop the 2019 Global Wellness Summit Trends. "So let's just put it out there on the table."

And I have to admit, from a personal standpoint, these words ring true. My dad's passing served as my own smack-me-in-the-face reminder that life is short and can change in an instant. And that reminder has informed every single decision that I've made in the last three years—like saying "yes" to things I normally never would have (traveling, skydiving, motorcycling through South America, breaking up with a bad boyfriend, changing my career entirely) and saying "no" to things I simply didn't want to do.

Steve Jobs perhaps put it best during his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University: “Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important." And, for what it's worth, that's one of the quotes that WeCroak regularly delivers when it reminds me that I'm going to die.

Death positivity may well be a permanent fixture of wellness—but it doesn't undercut the grieving process. Here's why so many people get stuck in step three, and how to handle ambiguous loss.

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