Life After Life

Increasingly, women are infusing our culture’s treatment of mortality with feminism, viewing the way we die as an act of empowerment and resistance, and creating what has become known as the “death-positive movement.”

| Winter 2017

  • Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death.
    Photo by Mara Zehler
  • Sarah Chavez of Death and the Maiden.
    Photo courtesy Sarah Chavez
  • Author Lucy Coleman Talbot.
    Photo courtesy Lucy Coleman
  • Bioarchaeologist Krista Amira Calvo.
    Photo courtesy Krista Amira Calvo

In 2008, in a hard-to-find alleyway in Brooklyn, The Morbid Anatomy Library opened. The small room full of medical specimens, taxidermy, and books about death and mourning, was a labor of love for founder Joanna Ebenstein, who wanted to share her collection with like-minded people. The lectures she began hosting in an adjacent room full of folding chairs, on topics such as grave robbing, Mexican folk deity Santa Muerte, and ossuaries (essentially storage places for human bones), got so popular that they were standing room only, with people often spilling into the library and listening through the wall. What became impossible to ignore was that most of the events’ featured speakers and the majority of the audience members were female. 

This was no isolated phenomenon. In the U.S., talk about death and dying is often stilted and discouraged, our cultural treatment of it clinical and typically devoid of intimacy or personal choice. But over the past 10 years, women have been creating space for more open and enlightened discussions about one of the few life events that every single person on the planet must face, putting them at the forefront of what’s now known as the “death-positive movement.” It’s a movement that seeks to normalize discussion of death, to help people take steps toward dying in the way they wish, and to ensure that our culture progresses in the choices we have surrounding death. For many of these women, feminism plays a big role in the death-positive work they do, and now, in the Trump era, their objectives have political motivations and ramifications as well — ensuring the right to choose a “good death” (more on that later) is its own form of activism.

One of the women leading this death-positive charge is Caitlin Doughty. In 2011, with a background in medieval history and a job in a crematory, she started a “death-acceptance collective” with about 10 friends — scholars, writers, funeral directors, and artists — called the Order of the Good Death to “bring realistic discussion of death back into popular culture.” She went on to graduate from mortuary school, and soon became internet famous with her engaging YouTube series Ask a Mortician, in which she answered questions about anything having to do with death, mourning, funerals, and more — from exploding caskets to necrophilia — in a funny and approachable way. Her most popular video, about what happens to hip and breast implants after death, has racked up nearly half a million views. “Death positive doesn’t mean that when your mother dies you’re supposed to be positive about it,” Doughty explains. “It means that it’s OK to be openly fascinated by death, and the art, literature, history, and meaning that arises from our inevitable mortality. It’s OK to plan your own funeral, it’s OK to want innovation in how we are buried or cremated. None of this is morbid or wrong.”

In 2013, along with medical historian Megan Rosenbloom and museum curator Sarah Chavez, Doughty launched Death Salon, an ongoing series of events modeled after 18th-century intellectual gatherings, but with such topics of discussion as “mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history.” The movement continued to grow as Doughty’s 2014 memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons From the Crematory, became a New York Times bestseller. That same year, Morbid Anatomy became a full-fledged museum after a generous investment, occupying a large, three-story building, continuing with popular lectures, and hosting exhibits of arcane collections, mourning artifacts, historical waxworks, and even taxidermy classes. The museum became a media darling, covered by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Geographic, and other respected outlets. (Sadly, the museum recently met its own demise, and has shut down.)

As more attention was lavished on this rising tide of death-centric cultural happenings, articles commented on the prevalence of women in the “scene,” often with a note of surprise that so many were interested in something so morbid or depressing. Young women shouldn’t be hanging out in mausoleums, slicing open dead animals, or dealing with deceased bodies, should they? It’s exactly these stereotypes that the women of the death-positive movement are working so hard to change, and where feminism comes to the forefront of their goals. “Hundreds of years ago, women were in charge of the dead. A person died at home, was cared for at home, had a wake at home,” Doughty says. “But in the early 20th century, that job was taken from women and given to male ‘professionals’ who charged money for care of the body. Any time a woman washes and dresses her own dead person, she is taking that power back and subverting how corporate funeral homes want death to happen.”

Chavez agrees, noting that women’s relationship with death is different long before we die. “We are often forced to confront death in ways most men are not. For most of us, it’s a constant companion,” she says. “In the past three years several friends or immediate family of friends have been murdered by their male partners. It seems like every week another woman, or dozens of women in the case of the recent attack [at the Ariana Grande concert] in Manchester, are murdered simply for trying to have agency over their lives or, honestly, just existing. This experience of having to constantly be aware of your mortality is a heavy burden. No one wants to just exist — we want to thrive.” The women in the death-positive movement are working to shift that relationship, and it continues, perhaps just as crucially, after we’ve taken our last breath. Chavez encourages women to question the current “norm” offered by the male-dominated funeral industry. “Don’t leave what happens to your body when you die up to someone else. Making informed decisions about your death is a feminist act, and an important part of your legacy,” she says. “Smash the patriarchy with your corpse!”

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