Yesterday, a good friend of mine sent me the following text:
There’s a dead bird here and a bunch of bugs eating it and I had two simultaneous thoughts: this makes me think of Ange, and Ange is the only person on earth who would find that flattering.
And he was right. I was absolutely tickled. I realized I have become That Friend™ with my unique (or, to most people, weird) passion for death.
A decade ago, if you’d told me that I’d stand out by being so vocal about death and dying, I’d call you a liar. Back then, I wanted nothing more than to keep my head down, blend in, and make as few ripples as possible. But two years ago, I read Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and my mind opened with revelation. Death is a beautiful, natural part of our fleeting lives, I realized. And talking about death is important—and it isn’t happening.
In the United States, where I was born and raised, and where I currently live, death is a taboo topic. Many people consider it too morbid for polite conversation. When relatives die, parents might tell curious children that the deceased has “passed on” or “gone away”—troublesome euphemisms that hide the reality of human existence. Many people act as if they will not die, as if the world is theirs forever. Moreover, society encourages a person to soldier through their grief, so most bottle it up, not knowing how to healthily express it, suffering alone.
But when I shared a screenshot of my friend’s text on Facebook, the reaction received was neither awkward nor dismissive. People loved it. They thought it was hilarious. And it’s because they know me, Angelica, the “deathling.” They see the essays and articles I share about death doulas, alternative burial arrangements, and home funerals. They’ve read accounts of my experiences at Death Cafés and cemeteries. My cover page on Facebook is a photograph I took of a deer’s spine with one of my favorite quotes superimposed on it.
And I would not have received such positive reactions from my friends—or even the original text at all—if I hadn’t been so vocal for the past two years. Perhaps some of my friends already viewed death positively before I started talking about it. What’s more likely is that they did not think much of it at all. And now? Now people tag me on posts about death culture. Now people send me links to free, online college courses about death. Now people text me that insects eating animal corpses remind them of me.
Now people are thinking about it when they weren’t before.
I know that I’m one person. In my position, I only have a certain capacity to influence society; beyond that, I am powerless. But humanity is a network, and changing the way one person views death and dying potentially changes the way a dozen people view death and dying. And allowing people with similar views to share and discuss them without shame will slowly dismantle the misconceptions and taboos plaguing our death culture.
If I can do that, even on the smallest scale, that will be enough.