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Death Isn’t Optional
I got my start in aging at LeadingAge, the national United States non-profit working for non-profit long-term care providers. Its CEO at the time, Larry Minnix, would often lament that “Americans are the only people in the world who think death is an option”. While Larry’s sentiment rings true today, the reality is that humanity has always struggled with mortality and, in many ways, individuals have spent more time and resources pushing against dying than leaning into it. Yet the Reaper always wins in the end.
Rather than fight against the end, there is a growing movement being led, in part, by Caitlin Doughty and Sarah Chavez, to reframe what’s possible when it’s time to expire. Because if people have a better relationship with death, it may actually enhance their lives. Individuals can take better control of their lived experience by making better, more informed decisions that can positively affect their day-to-day lives, as well as those of the people that will survive them.
Birth of the Good Death Movement
The genesis for this movement began over a decade ago when Doughty was a young funeral director in Los Angeles. She quickly realised that the industry at large was badly broken, and desperately needed reform. Too many people had come to accept that funerals had to be expensive, and left little room for participation or mourning. Reforming the industry would be cumbersome, at best, because death was a subject that most individuals avoided at all costs; that is, until the inevitable occurred.
The Order of the Good Death, Doughty’s brain-child that is run today by Chavez, began as a way to bring together industry professionals, academics, advocates and others together to “reframe what is possible at the end of life”. Today, the community is made up of over 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, and quarter of a million followers on social media channels. Their podcast, Death in the Afternoon, has well over a million downloads.
Chavez and Doughty aren’t afraid to push the limits in their quest to ensure that everyone has access to a good death, regardless of race, gender identity, disability status, sexuality or class. They offer resources that include guides, information on how to protect rights before and after death, in-person and virtual events as well as grants for “death positive practitioners”.
Recent projects include advocating for legislation to legalise greener death options; funding for the research and preservation of Black burial ground; creating a comprehensive toolkit and resources around COVID-19; providing financial support for other non-profits working to make a good death more equitable in marginalised communities; and creating resources and a guide to inform transgender people of their death rights.
Humanity may never have a fully comfortable relationship with the end of life—but greater understanding of the experience can make it more palatable and can enhance individual lives, as well as those that survive them.