Anthropologist/writer Antropologė/rašytoja
Anthropologist/writer Antropologė/rašytoja

Solveiga Zibaite


my ‘death positive’ might not be your ‘death positive’

In light of recent attempt by the Order of the Good Death to clarify the ‘myths’ surrounding the concept of death positivity, I decided to put forward my short consideration on the term and propose a definition of ‘death positive’ that I find easier to identify with personally.
Before doing that, I must state that I have utmost respect for people working to change the Western deathscapes and funeral industry. I admire the goals of the death positive movement to provide accessible resources on self-education, encourage developing a sufficient and articulate vocabulary about issues surrounding death and exploring fears and discontents and thoughts about the presence of death.

I do identify with the mission of the movement but ‘death positive’ is not a definition of myself that rolls off my tongue easily – I’m not the first, I’m not the last to have a problem with it.
Originally, death positivity had more connotations with being body and sex positive and says, as Caitlin Doughty explains: “I am fascinated by death, the history of death, how cultures around the world handle death, my own relationship to mortality, and I refuse to be ashamed of that interest.” but for some people it comes to mean this:

A Mortician’s Tale is a ‘death positive’ video game, my critique on it will be on Discover Society next week.

The concept is explained brilliantly on the Order of the Good Death website, but it does alienate people who come across it looking for resources, for example, after sudden bereavement as it is very easy to think about it as simply having positive attitude towards death. In a Facebook comment reply Caitlin Doughty states that misunderstanding of death positive movement is ‘likely because people are only exposed to a single article, or someone explains it to them and it gets lost in translation’. That is one of the possibilities – not everyone has time to fact-check everything, especially if they find it antagonizing at first instance. One article sometimes is enough to deter people. Should it be considered a problem if dedicated people are still dedicated and it is they who put in the hard work? Not necessarily.

In explaining what death positivity is not, Caitlin Doughty admits that she didn’t expect for the term to take off, saying: ‘As an advocate, you go where the enthusiasm and momentum take you, and the term death positivity was challenging and necessary’. I value her honesty tremendously here.

Now, I am a 25 year old woman who listens to K-pop unironically and has no social capital, so take the following with a pinch of salt.

My immediate understanding of death positivity when I heard of it was primarily informed by me not being a native speaker of English. I immediately associated the word ‘positive’ with a diagnosis, a change of status, something akin to a positive pregnancy test.

So the way being death positive works for me and the way in which I identify with it, would be using the identification with HIV-positive. Before testing for HIV, the person does not know he is infected, but the virus is in his body. After testing, the person wrestles with, hopefully comes to terms with a changed status, acknowledges the presence and inevitability of his condition, educates himself, makes lifestyle changes and informed choices that make his quality of life as best as possible. A person lives with it, not despite it. Same for being death positive – once having become painfully aware of one’s own mortality, either through bereavement or personal meditation, a person attempts to come to terms with this human condition and commits to researching, educating, informing himself in order to make what he deems the best decisions for himself and his loved ones, working within the presence of death, not around it.

This conceptualization of being death positive still doesn’t possess the desired transparency because it needs elaboration upon introduction. Here I am unfortunately unable to offer a solution to solve the movement’s image management problem, but in a future post I’ll consider the value of pessimism in being death positive.

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Published on January 31, 2018