Aside from birth, the only other thing that is guaranteed to happen to every single person on the planet is death. No exceptions, no way around it. Your own death aside, chances are good that you will be affected by deaths of loved ones and most likely have to plan a funeral or two before your own comes about.
People who think and talk about death a lot are often labelled "morbid", or "death obsessed". Guilty as charged, I suppose. But that's exactly what I recommend doing. Learn all you can, talk about your own mortality and funeral wishes, talk to your friends and family about theirs. Most people won't want to — one of the downsides to being a conscious human is the awareness that someday you will die, and it's normal for that to scare the hell out of you. Death-denial is the default in modern Western culture, to the point that we attempt to extend life past the point of sense and hire people to dress and make up the corpses of our loved ones to create an allegedly comforting "memory picture".
Here, I will present some ways to think and talk about mortality that will hopefully make you relax a bit about it, manage the anxiety and maybe be able to let go.
How and Where to Start Talking About Death
Luckily, as the past five years or so has ushered in an exciting era of Death Positivity, there are more and more opportunities to consider your own death, and to plan for it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a sampling of some of the organisations or events you could take part in that can help ease death anxiety.
- YG2D (You're Going to Die) in San Francisco is an "open space where people can share their thoughts and feelings about death". It usually takes the form of an open-mic night, described as "bringing people creatively into the conversation of death and dying while helping to inspire and empower them out of the context of unabashedly confronting loss and mortality".
- Death Cafe was started in 2011 in London, but now exist all over the world, including Australia. They are casual gatherings described as just getting together to drink tea, eat cakes and talk about death, without an agenda.
- Death Salon is a group of funeral directors, artists, intellectuals, authors and "independent thinkers who aim to subvert death denial by opening up conversations with the public about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture". They have hosted events in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and more. The next scheduled gatherings are in Seattle and Boston.
- The Death Talk Project, based in Portland, Oregon, seeks "to stimulate useful, honest conversation about how we die, how we mourn, and how we care for and remember our dead". They also host workshops, Death Cafes, movie nights and other events to bring people together into a community to confront how they relate to death and dying.
- Mortalls ("what to talk about before time runs out"), is a "death-positive conversation game". Starting a conversation about death and dying is difficult and awkward, perhaps even more so when done in a family setting. But now you have no excuse — and it may even be fun.
- Death Over Dinner helps you to arrange a dinner party to talk about death, walking you through the process of organising it and tailoring it to your circumstances.
- Dying To Talk also provides a discussion starter to help you broach the subject. The organisation "encourages Australians of all ages and levels of health to talk about dying".
You should be able to find some sort of community or event at least in major cities. If you can't find one to attend, consider starting your own!
Contemplating Decomposition Makes You Less Afraid of Your Own Death
For those of a spiritual bent, there is a Buddhist meditation practice specifically designed to help conquer the fear of death and to wrap your head around the fact that some day, your physical body will no longer exist. With the Cemetery Contemplations, you meditate on the various stages of decomposition a dead body goes through using illustrations, photographs or even by looking at real corpses and skeletons. One Theravada Buddhist source explains it this way:
After viewing the corpse, one applies that consideration to one's own body. It breaks or shatters that complacent thought: 'I'm going to live forever. This body will continue on for all eternity.' When that happens, irritation or anxiety arises. Then, a sense of detachment arises — a realisation that the body is based on causes and conditions and it will be gone when those causes and conditions are no longer present. The end result of this meditation is sense of lightness or happiness; that one is not bound up forever with this body.
In 2005, when Thailand was recovering from a major tsunami that left thousands of dead bodies for Buddhist monks to cremate, the fact that they had been somewhat psychologically prepared by having studied photographs of decomposing corpses in their meditation was mentioned in the press. One monk explained:
It is very common with us to have [corpse meditation] pictures with us, to use them, or just to have in your hut, or have with you when you are eating, or just to look at and to contemplate.
On a somewhat lighter and more accessible note, alternative mortician and New York Times best-selling author Caitlin Doughty (above) offers similar advice for the contemplation of the disposition of your own body. It can set your mind at ease to really consider all the options and decide what fits with your own beliefs, spirituality and even phobias.
Getting Your Paperwork in Order Is Comforting for Everyone
That's all pretty heady, though, and sometimes the difficulty in facing your death has to do more with not feeling ready to handle major decisions about the end of life or your estate. But when will you be more ready? When you're older and sicker? When you only have a few weeks of life left in you — that's when you want to spend your time doing paperwork and dealing with lawyers?
Clear conversations and specific directions can ease the minds of everyone involved and relieve some of the anxiety wrapped up in thinking about your death. It's also a huge kindness for those left behind. Best of all, there's paperwork you can file to help loved ones make the decisions you want about your medical care, the disposition of your body, the type of funeral you want and so on.
Once you've decided who will handle your affairs when you are no longer able to, will they be able to find what they need? And who's going to deal with your stuff? You may not worry about it if you have any children, but on the off chance you survive them, who else? What if you don't have kids or any other obvious next of kin?
Downsize, Donate and Declutter, So Nobody Else Has To
While we're talking about your stuff, realise that you probably have too much of it. After you die, it all becomes someone else's problem. As Robert Wringham wrote:
Our stuff is unlikely to be used or valued by descendants. They will see it as a nuisance and want rid of it as quickly as possible because they already have too much stuff without inheriting ours. They will probably handle some of it affectionately and say 'silly old gran,' before selling it off in one big lot to a clearance company or booting it into a bin.
It can be hugely satisfying to not only declutter once and for all, but to do it consciously as a way to ease the burden to others after your death.
In addition to giving away a lot of your junk, think about donating your organs and tissues, and look into signing up to be an organ donor. Knowing that no matter how, when or where you die, you will be helping other people to live better lives is a great comfort.
Don't Wait to Achieve Goals and Resolve Conflicts
People who are actively dying from a terminal illness are often told to make amends with people and repair conflicts, tell people you love them, examine your religious beliefs and take stock of your life and accomplishments. But there's no reason to wait until you're at death's door to do these things.
Some people, when their doctors give them a limited amount of time to live, might use that remaining time to travel or check off "bucket list" activities, but again, there's no reason to wait — do them now. Living with the constant and conscious awareness of one's limited time helps you enjoy and appreciate health and life while you have it. Try to get those bucket list items checked off earlier.
Allow the Dying to Accept and Discuss Their Situation
Of course, some people experiencing death anxiety might be close to the end and have yet to have any of these important conversations. Friends and family of the actively dying often scold them for giving space to "negativity" or giving up hope, but there is no reason you can't continue to be hopeful while at the same time being realistic and practical. Not everyone needs to rage against the dying of the light, and accepting the inevitable is not "giving up".
Andrew Kneier, a clinical psychologist who works with cancer patients, shares that often the dying want to speak of what is happening to them, but that their friends and loved ones don't give them the space to do so, urging them to remain positive and hopeful, and "fight". In a study he performed at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center, which he discusses in his book Finding Your Way Through Cancer, he was able to discern six main factors continuously mentioned by his patients as they came to terms with their impending deaths:
- Gratitude for their lives and positive experiences
- Pride in accomplishments
- Faith or spirituality
- Making changes in order to be more at peace when death comes
- Their legacy, or positive contributions to others
- Loving and being loved
He emphasises that these were the topics privately consuming his patients, who had felt unable or unwelcome to discuss the topics with their families and loved ones.
I find that terribly sad, and it just validates that accepting, embracing and, yes, maybe even obsessing about death is an important and valuable part of life.
Read about death. Learn about death. Think about death. Make decisions about your own death. Ask your friends and loved ones about their deaths. And if at all possible, do what you can to assure that you die a Good Death.