July 30, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

What Does it Mean to Be Death Positive?

The movement and ideology, explained

What Does it Mean to Be Death Positive?
Harm reduction, respecting the wishes of those who've died, and increased societal understanding of death are all aims of the death positivity movement. (Shutterstock)

The death positivity movement is an emerging philosophy that reframes the way people view death. Though widely misunderstood, this movement is gaining traction in the death care industry and beyond. Today we're exploring this new way of embracing death as an inevitability. 


The Order of the Good Death


The Order of the Good Death is a movement founded by mortician Caitlin Doughty. It began with the first death salon in 2013, where members gathered to frankly discuss topics related to death. Since then, the movement has gained traction amongst those who reject the notion that conversation around death should be restricted, shameful or taboo. 


Their eight intentions serve as a basis for an ideology that embraces education, harm reduction and better ethics surrounding the still-mysterious nature of death.


What death positivity isn't


When people hear "death positive," they often mistake the term for the glorification of death. While the death positivity movement does seek to increase acceptance of this inevitable end to life, the idea that this movement romanticizes death couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, death positivity is about making the most of life, reducing the impact that our deaths have on the environment, and allowing those who are dying to do so with greater dignity and comfort. It's a practical way to reduce harm that results from the awkwardness surrounding the discussion of death.


It also isn't a movement that reduces the pain of grief. People who identify as death positive still grieve. They may hate death, and experience anger when someone they love is taken away. Though they know there is nothing to fear about a dead body, they recognize it's natural to feel this way. Being death positive means finding comfort in living well, and celebrating life at the time of death.


Breaking taboos


Though these concepts might seem obvious, the subject of death is still taboo. People find euphemisms to discuss the end of life, and at times the culture of silence leads to greater pain for the dying and bereaved that is necessary. If you've ever witnessed a loved one battle a terminal illness and lose, you know that good end-of-life care is one of the greatest gifts we can afford someone as they leave this life.


Talking about death, acknowledging that death is a natural part of life, and doing our best to change the culture and conversation surrounding death does not have to be morbid. Viewing our inevitable demise as a realistic and inevitable end to life is practical. Through the exploration of death-related topics, death positive people hope to conquer fear and improve the human condition.


Death positivity aims to increase society's understanding of death through education, art and openness about the realities everyone faces at the end of our lives. Death affects every single person on earth, and many people experience bereavement long before their time on earth ends. 


The death positivity movement seeks to increase understanding of a topic that remains taboo, despite being an inevitable part of life. (Shutterstock)


Mythbusting death positivity  


Here are some of the most common misconceptions people have about the death positivity movement.



  • Death positivity encourages or wishes for death.


The death positivity movement shares some of the responsibility for why funerals are moving toward celebration of life, and away from solemn mourning. Though it is always a sad occasion when someone passes away, it is a natural part of life. Death positivity does not advocate for death, but for better death when the time comes.



  • Death positivity is goth.


Romanticizing death is not a factor in the death positivity movement. Rather than glorifying death, an educated, clinical approach demystifies the nebulous and emotional topic. Honest discussion about final wishes for remains, finances, child care and hospice care is not goth—it's practical, and important.



  • People who are death positive are ready to die.


Death positive folks are not fearless in the face of death. For many, discomfort with death will never go away. There is nothing wrong with feeling this way, and death positivity does not require anyone to embrace the loss of anyone grieflessly. It seeks to reduce the harm that comes about when the topic of death is seen as taboo.



  • Death positivity is purely secular.


Death positivity is possible across all religions. Many faiths view death as as homecoming or reunification with other deceased loved ones, and so acceptance of death is baked into their religious education from a young age. But death can be a frightening prospect for folks of all faiths. No one knows how, where or when they will die, and these unknowns are anxiety-inducing—even for folks who have no doubts about the afterlife.


Death positivity encourages openness in order to better serve those who are dying, those who fear death, and those who want to feel more secure in life by understanding loss.



  • Discussion of morbid topics only upsets people.


It's true that talking about death is uncomfortable for some people. However, there are real and harmful outcomes when a culture of silence prevents frank discussion of death:



  • Missed opportunities for loved ones to say goodbye when a relative is dying.

  • Undermining a prognosis, for fear of saying death is near. 

  • Lack of proper documentation of final wishes. 

  • Inadequate end-of-life care.

  • Difficulty grieving in a healthy manner.

  • Increased fear of death.


When death is taboo, remembering deceased loved ones after the funeral can also become taboo. But losing someone doesn't mean they never existed. The sharing of life stories is essential to keeping the memories of special people alive. Fear of frank death discussions can lead to fear of remembering the dead.


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A good death


If someone lived a good, long life and died with dignity, why should their death be treated as a tragedy? Certainly the loss of a beloved friend or relative will cause deep grief—and as painful as it is, grief is actually good. Grieving every death is important and natural, but fighting every death is not. 


By acknowledging death as an inevitability, the death positivity movement advocates for the possibility of a "good death." A good death means final wishes were honored, pain was managed efficiently, a will was created and followed to the letter, grief was openly communicated, and the person was not forgotten. By facing it, we can reduce much of the avoidable discomfort involved in the way we process loss.

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