Death positivity is a thing I’ve been trying to embrace for years. The term comes from Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author of one of the books I’m sharing today. It’s a play on sex positivity, wherein frank discussions about a normal part of life aren’t taboo.
Along my journey, I’ve read a lot about death. The science, the history, the funeral industry, the medical ethics, the rituals—I love it all. In high school, my big debate presentation was about the need for assisted dying. In college, I heard about the human cadavers that were housed in the biology building and immediately dove into reporting on it for a yearbook story. The professor lent me her copy of Stiff and changed my life and, well, here we are.
The other day, over two enormous breakfast sandwiches, my husband and I talked about the various death positive content we’ve consumed lately. He’s a big fan of the podcast Ologies, which recently had two separate episodes about thanatology, with lots of tidbits about dying and which griefs are socially acceptable (miscarriage? eh. pet? get over it.) and how damaging those notions are. The first episode ends with an especially poignant quote from the guest, Cole Imperi:
“Every time you encounter death in some way it’s an opportunity to choose to live.”
That really sums up what I want for myself in all this death positivity reading. And I hope you can find the same.
August is usually the darkest month of the year in my world. It holds two death anniversaries that happen to be back-to-back, though with 14 years in between. This week, my goal is to honor those deaths in a positive way, rather than hanging a dark cloud above me like I normally do. Wish me luck.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
In the best form of death positivity, the internet’s favorite mortician travels the world to witness current death, funeral, and burial rituals. She hangs out with a mummified grandfather who has his own bedroom in Indonesia. She attends an open-pyre funeral in the United States. She visits a body farm, where researchers are working on perfecting human composting. As an American, where death is feared and sanitized, it’s eye-opening to see how other cultures elegantly handle death and dying.
The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America by Anita Hannig
Captured over five years of studying assisted dying, this intimate book tells the stories of the patients, nurses, and activists close to the cause of “dying with dignity.” Get to know the people who planned their deaths and invited family members to attend—and the ones whose family members disagreed with their decision. It’s powerful and sure to spark some much needed conversations.
Full disclosure that I worked on this book, but I promise this rec would come even if I didn’t have a hand in its production.
Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by Sallie Tisdale
Sallie Tisdale spent more than a decade working in palliative care, so if anyone knows about the dying process, it’s her. This book is both a compassionate guidebook and compilation of anecdotes from the many deaths she’s witnessed. If you only read one of these books, make it this one.
📚 Find these and a handful of others on this list of Death Positivity Books! And tell me if you have a favorite that isn’t mentioned.
The Worst Books to See on a Dating Profile, Book Riot
I whipped out all the snark for this list and the Facebook commenters are not having it.
The Sexiest Romance and Erotica Audiobooks, Book Riot
Major props to whichever editor wrote “get some ice cubes for your ears” in the snippet for this one.
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I am so sorry I missed this post when you published it but really glad to see it now. I hope the anniversaries of August left you with some of the peace you were seeking and less of the pain you’ve experienced in the past.
I’ve never heard the term “death positivity” but I’ve been focusing on this for a long time myself. “Stiff” remains one of my favorite books for the way Roach helped to demystify death and to introduce me to green burial. I long to have conversations about death and dying with those I love but I’ve learned that we are all in very different places for many understandable reasons. I’m looking forward to reading more of the books on your list. Perhaps these will be open a way for some of the difficult conversations we need to have.
Death positivity is something I've recently started a longtime journey on. I read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Stories from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and it really got me thinking about how not only we as a society perceive death but myself as an individual looks at death. It's some really powerful but really hard stuff. Good luck to you this month as you honor the death anniversaries, it isn't easy but support is all around you whenever you need it.