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  • Fayth Hall

Intro To The Death Positive Movement

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My art heavily focuses on death and funeral related issues, and I mention them in my statements, but those only scratch the surface of the Death Positive movement. I think it's important to have a more in-depth knowledge on the subject, so I'll be providing a brief intro the the Death Positive movement.



What does "Death Positive" even mean?


According to The Order of the Good Death, the first tenet of Death Positivity is "I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society." Death Positive does not mean you are ready and excited for death (that's kind of hard honestly), but simply means you believe that many of our problems and feelings towards death stem from our distance from it.

Funerals used to be in the home, where we washed and shrouded our passed loved one personally. The community would come together in the home to help the bereaved with the funeral and day-to-day chores, allowing the family to focus on their grief and healing. We spent time with our dead, allowing us to say goodbye and grieve at our own pace.

Today, it is common practice to outsource to funeral homes. After a family member passes, the funeral home is called within the hour to come and pick up the body. The longest I've personally seen it take is 90 minutes. The director whisks away the body to be washed and embalmed behind closed doors. The family may only get to see their loved one once or twice more before the casket is closed and the burial takes place.

This distance may allow some to grieve properly, but not nearly everyone, especially when multiple deaths hit a family in a row. From when I started college until the pandemic started, I went to a funeral every nearly semester of school. I lost both of my great-grandparents and both of grandparents (who practically raised me), and all of them had what we would consider a traditional American funeral.

My family has been devastated, especially after we lost my grandmother who was practically the matriarch. Talking about any of them is still a sore subject and it doesn't feel like anyone has healed properly from their loss. I even found myself asking my partner if we should visit my grandmother before we left town one weekend before I remembered she had passed. I still sometimes forget she's gone because I only saw her once for about 20 minutes before the casket was sealed.

The disconnect between the dead and the grieving family causes the wounds of death to never fully close.


Does this mean they want everyone to have a home funeral?

One of the major beliefs in Death Positivity is the right to choose what you want after death. As I mentioned, the traditional funeral works for some, and they may not wish to have their family personally care for the dead and that's fine. The bigger issue is that many families are under the impression they have to have that traditional funeral and there is no other options.

Families should be aware of what their options are and what works best to help heal, and this includes more than traditional and home funerals. This could include a green burial service, where the family spends time in nature after giving their loved one an eco-friendly burial, a witness cremation, the family being present for the cremation sometimes even pressing the button to start the process, or even a memorial party with no body at all, just a gathering where the family celebrates the life of the deceased.

The important part here is that we have to talk about it, especially with our families. Unless we discuss what options we have, many people will feel forced to do whet may not work for them, never knowing their options. We also want our families to know our wishes so they are not left guessing or arguing what you wanted during a time of tremendous grief.


Eco-Friendly Death Options


Another major tenant of the Death Positive movement is the advocacy and support for newer and more sustainable disposition options. Most people only know of two options for body disposition; cremation and traditional burial.

Both of these are problematic environmentally, and many people are unaware of that. A traditional burial more often than not involves embalming. Through the process of embalming, 3-5 gallons of embalming fluid replace the blood in the body, the main ingredient of which is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and extremely toxic to the living. The United States alone buries 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid alone, leading to the risk of it seeping into the ground water.

Formaldehyde aside, we also use a lot of wood and metal for the caskets and burial vaults. About 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 180,544,000 pounds of steal and 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze are used per year for caskets (source). Not only is this unsustainable, it also adds unnecessary cost to the already expensive funeral. The average funeral can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000 with most of the price going towards the casket and burial vault. Many families cannot afford this and often go into debt for a funeral or launch a GoFundMe just to pay for it.

Cremation is a less expensive option, with a direct cremation (meaning no service or embalming, just straight into the machine) costing between $1,000 to $2,200. However, cremation releases greenhouse gases into the air and mercury if the deceased had mercury teeth fillings. Not to mention the amount of gas required to run the cremation. It's less damaging to the environment than traditional burial, but still not great for it.

There are a few newer options that are better for the environment, but some have no been legalized yet. A major goal of the Death positive movement is to help legalize these practices across the country.

I'm just going to talk about two practices that are considered better eco alternatives to traditional burial and cremation.


Green Burial

I briefly mentioned green burial earlier, but let's talk about it in depth. Green burial simply entails the burial of an unembalmed body in either a biodegradable casket or shroud in an area that will allow it to decompose naturally. Tombstones are not usually placed, but nameplates can sometimes be installed. Some green burial sites will even let you have a piece of native flora planted above your grave, giving your family a place to return to remember you.

Conservation burial is exactly like green burial, but with that added benefit of protecting an endangered piece of nature. One a body is buried on a piece of land, it is considered hallowed ground and cannot be developed or built upon. There are a few sites like this around America, and the practice of green burial is legal, though there are a few laws you have to follow. Here is a good source for what to do and not do for a green burial.


Alkaline Hydrolysis

Also known as "water cremation", alkaline hydrolysis uses heated and pressured water mixed with lye to speed up decomposition of a body. The process leaves bone fragments which are pulverized into ashes, just like in cremation, though alkaline hydrolysis leaves more ashes.

Alkaline Hydrolysis emits no greenhouse gasses and uses about 1/8th the energy of a typical flame-based cremation. The water used is comparable to the water used in a day by a family of three and can be used as fertilizer or released into the sewage system. This process is much better for the environment compared to flame cremation.

Historically, America doesn't do well with new body disposition options. Cremation wasn't widely practiced until the 1950s and was previously seen as undignified and pagan. There were many heated arguments that cremation was cruel and obscene, and now it is seen as dignified and simple. Unfortunately, water cremation is experiencing the same treatment. For humans, it is only legal in 18 states and is up for consideration in Texas. Many of the arguments against cremation are being echoed against water cremation today.

For an in-depth look at the science and history behind the process, The Cremation Society of North America has a great article on it here.


Resources

This was just a brief into to the Death Positive movement and some of its major goals. Here's a list of resources if you want to learn more!


The Order of the Good Death's Death Positive Tenets

The Green Burial Council

Death and the Maiden

Natural Death Association

Cake (A wonderful end of life and postmortem planning resource)


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