When’s the last time you thought about what you want to happen when you die?
Do you want to be at home? Surrounded by friends? Out in the mountains, breathing fresh pine? Or maybe with your favorite music playing softly in the background?
Would you prefer to be buried? Cremated and turned into a diamond? Or maybe you prefer a green burial?
Yes, these ideas and overall conversation sound morbid at first glance, but death is an absolute part of life and guaranteed to happen to all of us, at least as of now.
Just as physical and mental wellness have picked up steam in the past two decades, death wellness is a movement that’s planting roots across the United States.
What is Death Wellness?
The death wellness movement is rethinking the modern way of how we approach death.
Death wellness or “dying well” is a trend of individuals, academics, spiritual leaders, and healthcare professionals contemplating, discussing, and planning for a comfortable end of life for everyone involved. Death wellness is also referred to as the death-positive movement.
Instead of running away from the idea of death, more people are turning toward it, confronting anxiety around dying, and learning how to support each other through the process.
People are having hard conversations ahead of death, instead of after when it’s sometimes too late. These conversations are allowing people to be less reactive during a time of intense grief and instead be more proactive before suffering occurs.
Why Should we Start Rethinking our Approach to Death?
The hard truth about modern-day death in America is that most people don’t die where they want. In surveys, it has been found that 80 percent of people would prefer to die at home surrounded by loved ones.
It’s not a big surprise considering that most Americans don’t talk about how they want to die and generally prefer to avoid the conversation altogether.
So, most will die in a hospital, hospice, or at a nursing home. Conditions will be less than ideal, and many will die alone without their family to comfort them as they exit this Earth.
In a lot of ways, the dying person may or may not really be there themselves. Medical innovation and interventions can keep us alive, by definition, for months or even years without the individual’s ability to make conscious decisions for themselves.
Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “If that happens to me, pull the plug!” when they see someone else suffering at the end of their life. So many people can recognize that the suffering others go through in isolation is the last thing they want.
Decisions around death are hard and very personal. Yet so few Americans talk about it. And as a result, few of them die well.
Luckily, the death wellness movement happening across the country is full of people and organizations that want to change that, and they are starting conversations for the rest of us to join.
What’s Coming in 2020 and Beyond in the Death Wellness Movement?
From death doulas to memorial diamonds, morbid curiosity to the realities of after-death legal challenges, a lot is changing in the death industry, and you have the opportunity to start your own journey to die well.
Let’s walk through some of those innovations, occurring at each stage of the death process, which are occurring pre-death, post-death, and everywhere in between.
Making Death More Comfortable with a Doula
A death doula (also called end-of-life doula, or death midwife) is a trained non-medical professional who provides emotional, physical, and educational support for someone nearing death. They can be considered a mentor for the final chapter of life and are typically brought in by the dying individual’s family.
Death doulas are becoming evermore popular overseers of at-home deaths, as well as resources for those facing an impending death, or who just want to get things in order.
While every doula relationship will be different, they can help to:
>> Facilitate end-of-life planning
>> Mediate and honor the dying person’s wishes
>> Comfort the dying
>> Provide emotional support for the dying and their family
>> Create a life review and support legacy projects
>> Present the family information and resources on the dying process
>> Provide respite for caregivers
>> Help plan and facilitate after-death care
>> Provide logistical and household support
Discussing Fears About End of Life at Death Cafes
The Death Cafe model was developed by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid, based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz. Their objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Death Cafes gather the morbidly curious to discuss their fears about death, whether that be their own, someone they love, or just in general.
While you won’t find staff at a Death Cafe, you will find the locals in the area hosting friends, family, and the morbidly curious community members. There are no rules here other than keeping an open mind and being willing to get vulnerable.
To get an idea of what to expect at a Death Cafe, imagine a group gathering introducing themselves and, if desired, sharing their feelings or ideas on the topic of death. The discussion moves freely from the feelings and observations expressed. You can expect 10 to 12 people per group.
The Death Cafe website offers materials and steps on how to host your own Death Cafe, including how to be a good facilitator, how to source snacks and beverages, getting attendees, and more.
Planning for Life at Death Over Dinner
Death Over Dinner is a program that helps guide a discussion around end-of-life planning with friends and family.
The Death Over Dinner website makes it incredibly easy to host your own dinner. Fill out a quick questionnaire about who will join you for dinner, what prompted the dinner, and choose a few reading materials, and you’ll get an email invitation template 90 percent ready to be sent to your friends.
This email is prescriptive, and is intentional to get people to open up about the uncomfortable part of life: death. It’s helpful for guests to prepare by reading, watching, and listening to a variety of assigned materials to get everyone on the same page. Then, there’s a before and after dinner activity, all spelled out in the email.
There have been more than 100,000 Death Over Dinner events around the world since its inception in 2013. Death Over Dinner is cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B book and Arianna Huffington credits it for helping her to think about death every day.
This kind of routine to the dinner removes unknowns around what will happen there, leaving tons of room for the unknown is what is said and the vulnerability that is unleashed.
The founder of Death Over Dinner, Michael Hebb, has gone on as a partner in a non-profit called Round Glass, which has built out programs like this for all sorts of activities and difficult conversations and topics, including:
>> The Living Wake
Michael is bringing intent to dinner to help people have the hard conversations that will make us all better off in the long run.
Processing Death in a Safe Space with Grief Retreats
Grief retreats are a way to get away from the day-to-day, disconnect, and meet others who are going through the same experience so that individuals can build their new normal without their loved one.
You can come months after a loss, or even years. You can return multiple times, or go once. These retreats are for those who are mourning, and there is no time limit on when the initial cause of your mourning began.
“When we’re grieving, we don’t want to be a burden to people and you may not be able to see beyond that moment or circumstance…Destination Heal is a healthy place where you have permission to unload your worries, your trauma and your grief. There is no judgment. This helps you shift your focus and go through your day in a more positive, intentional way,” says Ty Alexander-William, owner of Destination Heal.
There are retreats for children versus adults, couples versus singles, and males versus females—though there are plenty of options out there that accept all. There’s a grief retreat for everyone.
Planning a Sustainable Burial with Green Burials
Green burials aren’t new, though they are beginning to take off in popularity.
One organization that has raised massive awareness around this issue is The Order of the Good Death, which promotes human composting (now legal in Washington state) and/or the burial of bodies as they once were buried—in a shallow hole in the ground covered by a shroud.
According to National Geographic, “American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
But not all folks are willing to opt for a green burial. Instead, many businesses in the industry are starting to build closed-loop systems that would allow for modern burial experiences or practices, while also removing the harm caused to the earth.
Memorializing a Loved One by Turning their Ashes into a Diamond
Memorial diamonds are a new form of diamond created using lab-grown diamond technology that use bio (aka human) carbon.
The ashes to diamond process is gaining more and more visibility as people opt out of traditional urns or graves as their memorial option. Memorial diamonds give you something bright, positive, beautiful, and everlasting to bring with you throughout the next chapter of life.
The process takes 7 to 11 months. During that time, memorial diamond companies provide updates and videos so you can go on a journey with your loved one, share updates, and exchange stories with friends and family about the person who built such amazing connections and relationships that this is part of their final legacy.
Remembering the Loved One with a Legacy Project
Legacy projects come in many different forms, but they all have one big goal in common: to honor the life and legacy of the person or pet who passed.
Some write books and work with politicians to have laws changed in the memory of their loved one. Others do multiple 5K walks a year to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer and its prevention.
Some non-profit organizations like HealGrief help folks put legacy projects into action as well. A program called Actively Moving Forward encourages college students who are grieving to take community action and engagement in honor of their loved one.
How Will You Die Well?
It’s time to face our own mortality, and that of those we love, so we can be more present now and better prepared for then.
As a wellness trend sweeps the nation, a dying well and death-positive movement and mindset shift is setting in. To be healthy as long as possible includes up through the moment of death.
Medical innovations can keep us breathing, but our mental health is what keeps us alive.
It is time for us to step up—all of us—and talk about what we want when we die, why it matters, and how we want to be remembered and remember those who have changed our lives for the better.
Let’s all die well.