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It’s Boom Time for Death Cults
Three very different mortality movements are surging in popularity across the death-denying West
There may be five stages of grief when a loved one dies, but when it comes to our own death, people tend to pick one reaction and stick to it. Some go with bargaining and pray for protection. Some deny death, even fight it, demanding ever-evolving life-extension technology. Some try accepting mortality, hoping the intervening years will be richer for it.
In the West, three death movements are booming at once, each with strikingly uniform demographics: Devotees of Santa Muerte are overwhelmingly working class, transhumanists are mostly white and male, and the death-positive movement attracts mainly women. At a time when social divisions seem deeper than ever, what can our reactions to mortal terror tell us about privilege?
A lit cigarette, a glass of tequila, maybe a top-shelf bottle if the ask is big: Santa Muerte shrines are peppered with offerings as devotees ask an enrobed skeleton — death herself, often depicted holding a globe or an hourglass — to bring death upon their enemies and for protection. Who better to ask?
While La Flaquita has gained a reputation for being the saint of choice for the narcotraficantes in the Mexican drug war, most devotees are not narcos. In fact, by the calculations of Andrew Chesnut, the leading expert on Santa Muerte, she has a staggering 10 million followers, with probably 70 to 75 percent in Mexico, 15 percent in the United States, and 10 to 15 percent in Central America. “To put this in perspective,” Chesnut says, “after thousands of years, there are only 14 million Jews in the entire world. In the past couple of decades, there’s no faster-growing new religious movement in the entire West, including Europe.”
Tracey Rollin’s book about Santa Muerte says she is “associated with safe passage to the afterlife” — so perhaps she’s the bouncer, someone to pull back the velvet rope and say, “I’ll vouch for this one.”
“Actually,” Chesnut says, “I’d say that’s kind of minor. I think concerns about the afterlife are less important for most Santa Muerte devotees; wondering where you’re going to go in the afterlife is a luxury. It’s more about a few more days, weeks, or years. Those of us who are well heeled and have all our needs satisfied can sit around and contemplate these things, but when someone’s coming after you with an M16, your afflictions are way more immediate.”
Despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church — and backlash from Mexico’s own government, involving the destruction of approximately 40 shrines on the border with Texas — Santa Muerte’s following has continued to grow. In the past decade, only Syria surpasses Mexico when it comes to violent death, and it can’t be ignored that Santa Muerte’s popularity is exploding at a time when people feel they have the least control over how or when they will die. “Santa Muerte is a movement for people who have very little choice about how they might die, with much more possibility of violent death,” says Sarah Chavez, director of the Order of the Good Death, a death-acceptance organization. As such, the movement has attracted a lot of trans people and women dealing with domestic violence.
But if there were a community living without a fear of “bad death,” how might their mortal terror manifest?
If you start your car in Tijuana and drive north for eight hours, you’ll arrive in the quaint neighborhood of Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco. This is the home of a large, friendly, extremely blonde man who doesn’t carry house keys because he has a door-opening chip implanted in his hand.
Zoltan Istvan is the face of transhumanism, an anti-death movement that proposes technology as the answer: Humans will inevitably, they believe, become cyborgs who never have to die. While statistics on how many people identify as transhumanist aren’t available, Istvan believes anti-aging and life-extension research is up 1,000 percent in the past 18 months; the Biogerontology Research Foundation, a UK nonprofit focused on developing therapies for aging and age-related diseases, has even begun a mission to summarize all the emerging technologies for life extension in a single document.
Istvan’s concerns about death don’t involve his enemies coming after him with an M16. He doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about being killed in the street for some minor infraction, like Eric Garner, or for nothing at all, like Philando Castile. The death Zoltan worries about—the death many of us worry about in the affluent West—is deemed a privilege elsewhere: death by aging. So why is transhumanism so overwhelmingly male?
“I can tell you that the single largest dilemma we’ve had is getting women into it,” says Istvan, who publicized the movement by touring the country in a bus shaped like a giant coffin. “I could barely get any girls on my bus,” he says. “We had an open invitation for anyone to travel with us. We had a constant influx of guys, but it looks terrible when you only have guys traveling around on a coffin bus.” (Is it unprofessional to guffaw? Because I did.) “If you have ideas, tell me. We are all at a loss.”
Where to start with why the ladies aren’t forming an orderly queue for the coffin bus. How do you explain to a rich white man the various ways that death hovers over women? How do you explain the psychological effect of being taught, repeatedly and from a young age, that you’re constantly in danger? That you could be raped and murdered, and even blamed for it afterward? How to reveal that we walk home at night fashioning makeshift shivs with our front-door keys between our fingers to a man who’s had a key chip implanted in his hand for pure convenience?
There’s a reason only society’s most privileged see death as something to be cured. They have food, water, shelter; the cops aren’t shooting them; no one’s threatening to rape them — death is a problem to the most privileged because “this sweet deal has an expiry date” is the gravest of very few problems. I don’t wish to devalue the transhumanists’ mortal terror; we all have it. Reaching old age is a privilege, but it’s also no picnic.
Still, Istvan has asked me why women don’t want to get on his coffin bus and ride to immortality.
“I suppose it’s that we don’t believe you,” I say.
Just as the term “feminism” has been mistaken to mean “amateur castrations on innocent men,” some think death positive means “spooning with skeletons and cheering when people flatline.”
In fact, as death studies scholar Lucy Coleman Talbot points out, it’s closer to body positivity, “Death positivity is about embracing the fact of your mortality the same way you embrace your curves, and in doing so you live a richer existence,” she says. It isn’t just an analogy; body positivity and death positivity come from a similar place. We live in a society that pegs a woman’s worth to her beauty and her beauty to her youth.
This goes some way to explaining why, in the death-denying West, the duty to deny aging sits much more heavily on women’s shoulders: North Americans buy 25 percent of all the world’s cosmetics, and according to The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, women spend more annually on makeup and skin care than the U.S. government spends on all its agencies. In the face of this, to undercut the patriarchy by accepting your body is undoubtedly a feminist act. The decision to accept its eventual decay is a step further. “One of the things that upsets the transhumanists is the fact that we’re not anti-aging,” Talbot says. “But there’s nothing ugly about old age.”
Sarah Chavez believes Western women are trying to take back what was lost when women were cut out of death care, “striving to reclaim and imbue aging and death with meaning and value. That’s their way of resisting patriarchal ideas. When death and dying became professionalized by the medical and funeral industries, women had to figure out different ways to grapple with their relationship with mortality.” All are not equal in death: Beauty standards follow us to the grave via the practice of embalming, and there is little to prevent trans people who die without an advance directive from being referred to by their former name and gender. It’s clear why women, trans, and nonbinary people would be attracted to a movement that encourages agency over one’s own corpse.
What’s not clear is why the death-positive movement seems to attract white women in particular. Is it that people of color have no interest in the movement, or is it simply that only the most privileged of women — educated white Western women — feel empowered enough to join it?
Society’s divisions are reflected more by our fear of death than perhaps any other metric. None of us feels we have enough control over how we will die. In a much-improved world, we’d all get to live the anxiety of the privileged white man. Istvan, who has the options so many others lack, feels oppressed by the very fact of a mortal body. “I just want the choice,” he says, in his safe neighborhood, to a straight, white, cis woman with access to free health care.
“This is the ‘I’m privileged’ statement, but we suffer under the specter of death, we have to worry ‘I could die from a heart attack’ or ‘I might get cancer,’” Istvan says. “I don’t like that idea at all. If I’m going to die, I want to choose how to die.”
Don’t we all?