During the past year that I’ve been working on this blog, a lot of people have asked me – aside from the general inquisitions about my seemingly morbid interest in anything dead and dying: “Claudia, what is this death awareness thing exactly? What does it mean?!” As the concept of death awareness is popping up out of obscurity a lot recently, let me explain it to you.
One of the goals I have with A Course in Dying is to raise death awareness: to encourage people to have conversations about death and dying, and by doing so, hopefully making them less afraid of it. To me, death awareness is an expression that can be taken quite literal – death awareness: the awareness of death. The awareness of the fact that some day, we will all die. And the awareness that death is not just something that takes place in the faraway future, but that it is happening always, everywhere, all around us, right now.
I didn’t mean to scare you there. Although death is a very real thing, it is not my intention to draw a grim picture of the world covered in a thick black veil of gloom and doom where one could drop dead any moment. I mean, technically you could. I hope you don’t, but you could. Death is a definite reality, but why is it we automatically associate death with darkness and fear?
I believe this is because we generally have taken on the attitude of not wanting to be reminded of our mortality. We, as a society, have learned to skillfully ignore death. Deep down inside, all of us know death is inevitable. But instead of exploring our instinctive curiosity about the subject, we turn towards the sun and the flowers, shake our heads in a giddy way and say “Not now!”. We dance our way through life, ignoring death just like one ignores a drunk stranger who desperately wants our attention. We dance harder, ignoring the presence of the other with our every move, we have another drink, we become so good at ignoring strangers that we forget to realize they are just like us.
What really scares us is the gaping depth of the unknown that has extended itself through the distance we have created between the tangible, material reality of life, and what becomes of it after death. The unknown. That which we can not control.
When you look at the history of how we cope with death, you will see that our death rituals have “evolved” a lot. Whether this is a good thing or not, they have certainly changed drastically. Where we used to tend to our deceased loved ones ourselves and for example wash and dress the body, we now distance ourselves from any physical contact through the medical customs that have been pre-arranged for us, to which we often simply give in because we don’t know any better.
The main goal for most of us during our time on this planet is to have a happy and successful life. And you get all the tools to do this: you go to school, learn to develop yourself through an education, you pursue a career, build a family, manifest your dreams. You are taught to live a good life. But no one teaches you how to die a good death.
Numerous situations in which we are faced with death feel unpleasant to us. Like dealing with a terminally ill family member or a dying friend and figuring out what you can do for them. Talking about end-of-life wishes and setting up a will. Arranging or even just attending a funeral. Telling someone who has lost someone dear to them that you care. All of these events are generally accompanied by a sense of unease. Not just because of the grief we feel, but because there often is little reference to go by. These are the most critical moments in life, and for the most part we just don’t know how to deal with them.
What if there would be more opportunities throughout every day life to explore this theme? If besides sex education there would also be room for death education at schools. If the topic of death would be integrated into our society in very practical ways, it would undo a big part of our current death phobia. It would allow us to find new ways to deal with death, so that it feels somewhat familiar to us when we are faced with it. So that we know what we can do, for ourselves and for others.
If you can get comfortable with what is seen as the worst-case-scenario, which is to die, which is really only inevitable, imagine how freeing that would be.
The past few years has given rise to a death-revolution – a deathvolution? A lot of new initiatives have been set up by death-aware people and professionals from inside the death industry, who feel the same way about breaking the current stigma of fear and denial that surrounds death. In America, The Order of the Good Death founded by Caitlin Doughty has kick-started the death-positive movement by spreading knowledge on how to make death an integrated part of life. Innovative and sustainable new ideas for disposing of bodies are being introduced. New rituals are created that allow people to mourn on their own terms and honor the dead in ways that are aligned with our current views on life. And in the UK Jon Underwood has introduced the concept of Death Cafe’s which are now taking place all over the world: real life meet-ups to discuss mortality and grief over tea and cake.
This shows that a lot is changing in the way we approach the theme of mortality. I hope to contribute to this by encouraging you to contemplate death. Completely normalizing death is perhaps a bridge too far for now, but accepting death as part of our existence, as an experience we will all go through, is definitely doable.
By raising death awareness and exploring the impact and possible meaning of death for ourselves, we gently allow it to exist and become familiar with it. We can still dance our way through life and enjoy all of its beauty and joy. But perhaps by taking this unknown stranger who we used to ignore by the hand, and allowing him to be here with us, we might have an even better time.