Mourning dress, ca. 1874, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Foreboding graveyards, ominous undertakers, and morose mourners adorned in black: death is covered by a dark cloud of seemingly untouchable taboo, but it doesn’t have to be. The Death Positivity movement has reached new audiences thanks to mortician-turned-YouTuber and author Caitlin Doughty, a staunch advocate for equity and transparency in the death industry. Devoted fans and internet surfers alike tune in for her thoroughly researched videos covering various topics, from ‘iconic’ historic corpses to the practicalities behind mortuary work. Her videos are both humorous and heartfelt: revolutionary in their open discussion around death and decay, topics often viewed by American society as intangible or distant. Doughty emphasizes the importance of autonomy over one’s postmortem wishes, whether aquamation, green burial, or the multitude of options available. Her videos are richly diverse despite being focused on one subject. In one video, for instance, she has a mukbang of funeral foods from across the globe. In another, she recreates Victorian post-mortem photography at New York City’s Merchant’s House Museum. Doughty refers to her subscribers as ‘deathlings’ and co-owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. For someone whose efforts are focused on death, Doughty leads an accomplished life while also exploring the realities around mortality. 

The power of choice plays a significant role in the movement, emphasizing that death is personal, not something to be sanitized or dehumanized. Death Positivity, as Doughty and others describe it, encourages open conversations about mortality, the importance of asking questions (even if they are morbid), and familial involvement with the death process. 

Ernest Becker’s 1974 book The Denial of Death strongly influenced the Death Positivity Movement, exploring the implications of humanity’s inability to face mortality. The movement’s title should not be taken literally: activists are certainly not advocating a tone-deaf, sunny disposition regarding dying. Instead, being Death Positive means supporting those grieving and respecting their wishes on how they mourn. It means having difficult-but-necessary conversations and acknowledging that corpses are not inherently health-hazardous. It means exploring one’s presumptions and fears about death so they can live life more fully. 

The movement asserts that keeping death “behind closed doors” denies people the truths of mortality and negatively impacts society. With the rise of modern antidotes and medically institutionalized deaths, people are provided fewer opportunities to encounter mortality. Death has become sterilized as opposed to the home funerals and family-involved rituals of bygone days. Fluorescent hospital rooms and secretive preparation of the deceased are the norms.

For those who feel comfortable, activists like Doughty find power in caring for our dead, as humanity has for centuries. Facing death through a realistic and personal lens helps challenge the fearful mystique created around mortality. Perhaps there is an element of societal paradox. Headlines about violent tragedies and gory horror films bombard the media. Simultaneously, though, death is treated with a hush-hush mentality where pricy funeral services and impersonal condolence cards reign supreme. Hence, fear-inducing, puzzling, and contorted perceptions of death are frequent. As Doughty eloquently states in her memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, “Looking mortality straight in the eye is no easy feat. To avoid the exercise, we choose to stay blindfolded, in the dark as to the realities of death and dying. But ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror.” Doughty encourages those in the deathcare industry and individuals alike to work against the established cultural dysfunctions regarding death.

Death salons are one outlet that helps educate the public on mortality and dying. The salons are inspired by the concept of intellectual 18th-century gatherings, bringing together an abundance of academics, death industry workers, and artists to destigmatize perceptions of death. From gravestone carvers to forensic pathologists, community-building occurs by discussing a topic often shunned from conversations. Such gatherings encourage dialogue around death denial but also the societal inequalities that exist in the death industry. A paramount aspect of the Death Positivity Movement is its acknowledgment of discrimination and lack of representation that people may face because of their identity. Helping Transgender people know their post-mortem rights, for instance, is something that The Order of the Good Death works to accomplish. People’s wishes and identities should be respected when they die, but some obituaries and morticians continue to misgender transgender people. Inclusivity plays a significant role in the Death Positivity Movement, with the intent to enact tangible change. 

Activists continue to make leaps and bounds against the coldly big-business, environmentally detrimental aspects which permeate the death care industry. Non-biodegradable materials, toxic chemicals, and carbon emissions are prevalent aspects of mainstream death preparation. Recently, Doughty was a prominent player in helping to legalize post-mortem composting in New York. The option is ecologically sustainable and produces soil that can be used as fertilizer. Perhaps there is a poetic element to the process, one’s body helping fuel new life. In the 21st century, a new-wave version of the long-held Latin motto ‘Memento Mori’ or “remember, you must die,” is arising. Instead of the famously shadowy, skull-adorned 16th-century paintings scribed with the phrase, acknowledging one’s mortality comes from internet activism and community-building. “Death should be known,” writes Doughty in her memoir, “known as a difficult mental, physical, and emotional process, respected and feared for what it is.”