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!”
In 2015, Doughty, along with mortician Amber Carvaly, opened her own progressive funeral home; Undertaking LA strives to empower families to be more involved with the dying process and caring for their dead, offering home funerals, natural burials, and more. But getting to that point was a long and challenging road. “Many [women in the death-positive movement] identify as feminist because we’ve worked as morticians, medical examiners, filmmakers, and in other jobs where we’ve had to work twice as hard to get where we are,” Doughty says. “We’re feminists because we still have a ways to go.”
The bias against women doing death work is one of the reasons that Death Salon co-founder Chavez launched another venture, Death & the Maiden, dedicated to exploring the “relationship between women and death,” through their online community, events, and conferences. It’s a project she began in 2015 with Lucy Coleman Talbot, who holds a master’s degree in Death, Religion, and Culture, and is the author of the Little Book of Maudism, which uses the film Harold and Maude to educate about death positivity. “There’s been this narrative being put forth that women are only interested in death work because they are nurturing or caregivers, which reduces them to stereotypes,” Chavez says. “Death & the Maiden was a way for me to take control of that narrative and place it squarely into the hands of the women who are actively creating the future of death.” Talbot agrees: “The strength that is required to work with death, even physically — the ability to move a dead body — is deemed a challenge for women or an abnormal choice of field. We are working to celebrate the bravery and hard work of those [women].” She also draws a parallel between “death positivity” and body positivity, citing similar feminist ideals. “Death positive is all about embracing your mortality. We exist within a death-denying culture, with an emphasis on anti-aging and youth,” she says, especially for women. Just as “the idea of loving your body and celebrating what you have in a culture that body shames and prescribes what a perfect body is,” can be empowering, so is “acknowledging we are mortal.”
This sense of personal fulfillment, along with making headway in a male-dominated industry, advocating for women to take agency of their bodies even in death, and bucking stereotypes can all be sourced to the movement’s undercurrent of feminism. But as Chavez said before, and Talbot echoes here, the movement’s feminism is most obvious when it comes to one of its major tenets: working toward equalizing the playing field, in life and in death. “Ultimately, feminism is about equality, and the death-positive movement centers on ensuring people know their rights when it comes to death and dying, but also that social injustices are heard,” she says. “[We are] concerned with the rights of women and the portrayal of women in the media as stereotypes when working with death or when victims of murder or brutality. Shying away from a topic because it’s uncomfortable is not the answer to changing cultural attitudes to death and dying or the treatment of those marginalized by society. Feminism is at the heart of this movement and is playing a vital role in challenging cultural norms and increasing death acceptance.”
Feminism may have a big influence on the movement, but recently, something else has been helping to propel it: our current political state. Doughty was out of the country doing research for her upcoming book (From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death) during the 2016 presidential election. But the morning after Trump won, she says, “I recorded a video on how he had used the fear of death to galvanize his base. There’s no doubt this was Trump’s tactic: ‘ISIS is growing stronger! Mexicans are rapists and murderers! Chicago is full of gun violence!’ He played on people’s fear of death, and he won. I was scared for my Latino friends, LGBTQ friends, handicapped friends.” The election amplified many of the issues the death-positive movement has been working on, and the current administration became “a massive kick in the butt to be more explicit about our core values,” Doughty says. One of those core values is the desire for all people to have a “good death,” which, Doughty explains, is different for everyone. “It’s simply a question of what you value. Do you want to die with no pain, die at home, die with your finances in order, be cremated and scattered in a forest?” she says. “None of these things will just magically happen as you lay dying. They all require planning and honest conversation.” But it’s clearer than ever that a “good death” is harder to achieve for some groups than others. “If you are a young black man shot by police, or a trans victim of violence, a ‘good death’ may seem like a myth,” Doughty says.
The melding of activism and the death-positive movement is something the women behind Death & the Maiden are focused on as well. “When I post a picture of a sugar skull or a cemetery during Día de los Muertos [Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration], it gets dozens of likes,” says Chavez, whose Chicana heritage influences her work. “However, when I post something about the violent death of a brown or black person, I will immediately lose about 100 followers. I find this very revealing. It’s wonderful to find beauty in death — artists, poets, and writers have been doing this for centuries. However, to acknowledge only certain aspects of death is to reinforce the very thing we are trying desperately to change. If your death awareness doesn’t include the people and issues that affect the most vulnerable and marginalized, then you are perpetuating death denial.” Just as intersectionality is crucial to feminism, it’s also imperative for the death-positive movement. “This is a movement about something all human beings experience — it is pointless if it isn’t inclusive,” she says.
To further these goals and broaden this scope, Chavez and Talbot co-hosted a conference with the U.K.’s University of Winchester in July. General speaker topics included “Gender and Death,” “Women as Death Professionals,” and “Death, Gender, and Activism.” Talbot says, “The question we are repeatedly asked is, Why? Why are women working with death? What better way to explore this question than with an event that gets people from across the world together to share their ideas and facilitate the conversation?” Chavez has her own ideas about why women are driving this movement. “Gender — as well as race and privilege — plays a large role in determining our relationship to and experience of death and dying. For so long, men have restricted our access to opportunities and spaces that have a direct impact on the quality of our lives,” she says. “I think more and more women are acknowledging that death is a part of life and they want some control over that aspect of it.” In addition to the talks, the conference offered film screenings, cemetery tours, and a number of workshops, including shroud embroidery and Victorian hair work techniques.
One of the speakers at the conference was Krista Amira Calvo, a bioarchaeologist and former docent at the Morbid Anatomy Museum who studies skeletonized human remains. Her focus is on death practices across cultures, and one of her favorite topics is funerary cannibalism (eating a community member’s flesh after they’ve died). “It’s assumed that if you’re part of this movement [and you’re a woman] it’s because you’re caring, but people forget that we’re also academics and scholars,” she says. “It’s our intellect and our drive and the realization that we’re needed in these areas [that brought us to the movement], not just that ‘we’re gentle creatures.’” Calvo, inspired by her love of the Morbid Anatomy community, recently launched her own lecture series, hosting “Activism in Death: An Exploratory Conference on Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Death” in May at Talon Bar in Brooklyn, the first of what she hopes will be many events. “It’s powerful women coming together to talk about the realms of death, activism, and social justice. And also, there are drinks!”
Bringing new perspectives to the forefront is one of her goals, and to that end, Calvo invited Myeashea Alexander to speak. A biological anthropologist, her talk focused on “how black bodies have been treated in death in reference to their social and political standing in America, and how we can use this information to inform and shape social justice going forward,” Alexander explains. As a black woman, she says she’s used to navigating spaces where few people of color are represented, but praises the death-positive community for being welcoming. “I’ve never been asked not to discuss those topics or to censor myself,” Alexander says. “This gives me hope for the future of the movement.”
Maggie Rich is fighting to represent another marginalized community as an activist focused on trans issues in the death-positive movement. “Transgender folks have the additional trauma of facing medical providers, family, partners, and death professionals who won’t respect their identity in death — won’t get their name right, put them in the right clothes,” says Rich, who is now also pursuing public office. “I see death-positive activists getting louder, amplifying their work and applying it to our general resistance.”
Sarah Chavez also hopes that her work will have a lasting impact on the future, in particular for young women who want to work in the death space, many of whom contact her for guidance. “[They] are interested in pursuing careers as morticians or medical examiners, asking for advice because their family and friends are discouraging and even shaming their interest. They’re being told that something is wrong with them, or that they are weird and creepy. Some have even been told ‘No one will like you if you do that’ and ‘How will you get a boyfriend?’” Chavez says. “This is heartbreaking and infuriating — I’ve had the same things said to me. They need to see examples of women working these jobs and thriving.”
Chavez’s response to this kind of criticism is unwavering. “The ‘morbid’ girls are your future doctors, your forensic investigators, your funeral directors, your EMTs. They are the ones inventing new technology and rituals that will impact one of the most important events in your life — death,” she says. “Us morbid girls? We’re going to save the world because we’ll be fearless. If we aren’t afraid of death, what is there left for us to be afraid of?”
Christine Colby is a New York City–based writer and editor and is the managing editor of Investigation Discovery‘s true-crime site, crimefeed.com. Reprinted from BUST (August/Septemer 2017). With an attitude that is fierce, funny, and proud to be female, BUST addresses a refreshing variety of young women’s interests, including celebrity interviews, music, fashion, art, crafting, sex, and news.