Who Gets To Have A ‘Good Death’?

A good death is often a privileged one. The bad deaths — violent, patterned deaths — are disproportionately experienced by the marginalized.

I n 1973, anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker posited a theory on life. Human civilization, he reasoned, is simply an extravagant and emblematic mechanism against the terrifying knowledge of our own mortality. Living with the fear of inevitable death, we are compelled to achieve greatness, to do something meaningful, in order to preserve a piece of ourselves in history.

As we well know, the quest for “greatness” throughout time has often led to atrocity. Our fear and denial of death have done damage on a global and personal scale, damage that, today, a growing movement is attempting to reverse and quell. Called “death positive,” this movement is an informal amalgamation of activists, historians, writers, artists, and death professionals working within various industries and projects to change our relationship to mortality and, essentially, drive us to accept the inevitability of death.

All live illustrations by artists Silent James

While death positivity takes many forms, a major tenet of this movement is the advocation for a “good death,” a death that is in line with one’s own individual values. While this means something different for everyone, the basic principle of a good death is that it’s been planned; this means the dying person is aware of their approaching demise, has come to terms with it, has legally prepared for it, has chosen their plans for interment, and can die at peace without pain, easing the mourning process for those left behind.

But it’s not always this simple. It’s true that categorizing any death as “good” is radical in our death-fearing society, but lurking behind this movement is a complicated disparity and dichotomy: A good death is often a privileged one, and the bad deaths — the violent, untimely, unexpected and patterned deaths — are disproportionately experienced by the country’s most marginalized people.

Human civilization is an extravagant survival mechanism against the terrifying knowledge of our own mortality.

“From so many levels, death is political,” said Sarah Chavez, director and co-founder, respectively, of the death-positive collectives Order of the Good Death and Death and the Maiden, at Death Salon, the annual death positive conference that brings together an interdisciplinary cohort of thinkers on the issue of mortality. (This year’s conference in Seattle occurred the weekend of September 8.) “And I find that the ways that we react to death are very similar to the ways we react to civil rights and social justice issues: Some have the privilege of denying or ignoring death because it has not touched them.”

For those without this privilege, death is a regular fixture of their identity. And these people, of course, more often than not are black, brown, gay, trans, nonbinary, female, and/or poor, and are at a higher risk of being denied a good death.

While the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 79, for black people, it’s 75. A 2012 study by the Center for Disease Control found that white men with 16 or more years of schooling have a life expectancy of 14 years more than black men with fewer than 12 years of education. For white and black women with the same educational differences, that gap is 10 years.

More than that, the incidence of violent death is much higher for marginalized groups. Black people — particularly black men — are three times more likely to die at the hands of police than white people, and eight times as likely as white people to be victims of homicide. And while nearly three women are murdered every day in the U.S. due to domestic violence, black women are murdered at a rate more than twice that of white women.

Additionally, women in the U.S. are more likely to die during or shortly after childbirth than women in any other developed country. But black women in the U.S. die in childbirth at a rate 3.5 times that of white women, and black infants die at twice the rate of white infants.

In 2016, the Human Rights Campaign tracked at least 22 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to fatal violence—the most ever recorded—though this year is on track to surpass that: We’ve already seen 20 transgender people fatally shot or killed by violent means in 2017, 14 of whom were trans women of color.

On top of that, the LGBTQ community as a whole is at a disproportionately high risk of suicide. According to the Trevor Project, 40% of transgender adults report having made a suicide attempt, and 92% reported making an attempt before the age of 25. Additionally, the rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, and two times greater for questioning youth, than that of straight youth.

Bad death is not just defined by the violent or oppressive means by which the death occurred, however. It’s also the potential objectification and/or disdain for the body and the death itself that follows.

“The dead black body is familiar in a particular way,” Angela Hennessy — artist, assistant professor at California College of Arts, and Death Salon speaker — said in an interview. “We know it because we have witnessed it time and time again. It is embedded in the legacy of white supremacy which has fed off the labor, the commodification, the use, the violent abuse, and the subsequent death of black bodies.”

A major way this manifests today is in the sharing and viewing of videos of police brutality against black men — and women — which works to desensitize and normalize the occurrence of violent black death, according to a study from Georgetown’s academic journal, gnovis.

“The recurring images of police brutality portrays it as a normalized practice, which feeds into perceptions that are used to rationalize discrimination,” the report reads. “Spreading social awareness in this technologically advanced age has led to the dehumanization of the black body. Sharing these images is not the problem, rather the casual manner in which these representations unconsciously reinforce and perpetuate the ideology that the black body is less than.”

Additionally, trans and nonbinary folks run the risk of being misgendered or having their identities erased after death: Because the law dictates that next of kin gets the right to your body and funeral arrangements after you die (unless you have an advance directive that states otherwise), these people are often turned over to the families that rejected their identities in life and continue to do so in death.

The violent deaths of women, too, are often trivialized. In the case of the highly publicized recent death of Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist whose body washed up on shore days after she went missing after stepping onto a man’s submarine, the news coverage largely focused on the “mad scientist” character who allegedly murdered her, as well as the similarities in Wall’s death to a Danish TV crime series, The Bridge. Many also chastised Wall posthumously for being brazen enough to step onto a man’s submarine alone. In other words, her death was diminished, and the fault was placed on her instead of the man who murdered her.

“When violence against women occurs, the conversation is frequently focused on a woman’s body and her actions rather than the overwhelming threat — serving as a subtle normalization of masculine violence,” journalist Alice Driver wrote in response to the coverage of Wall’s death.

All of which makes it clear: The intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and economic standing conspire to create a society in which “bad” deaths and “good” deaths are largely determined by demographics. In the face of this, it can seem like the idea of death positivity isn’t big enough to fix the underlying issues that cause this disparity.

How can the societal acceptance of mortality not just teach people to better come to terms with tragic death, but actually stop the unjustified killing of black men, or trans women, or female journalists?

“The idea that death is universal and that we are somehow united in this shared experience at the end of life is somewhat false,” Professor Hennessy says. “Yes — we all die, no doubt. But we do not die for the same reasons or in the same ways, and our deaths signify very different narratives in the history of this country. The risk of these notions of a good death, a natural death, or being death positive, is that many people will be set up for failure.”

Since Becker’s theory on life and subsequent book, The Denial of Death, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, others have taken his philosophy a step further. In 1986, social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon developed the Terror Management Theory (TMT) as a continuation of Becker’s ideas, which purports that humans “manage” their debilitating terror of death by developing and adhering to cultural worldviews that promise, in some sense, an idea of immortality in the form of either an afterlife, offspring, or the sense of belonging to something greater than the self.

‘Bad deaths’ and ‘good deaths’ are largely determined by demographics.

All of these things lead to disagreement with and fear of those who aren’t like us. (TMT has been used to explain the rise of Trump and the passing of Brexit.) And this leads, ultimately, to the preservation of one set of ideals by the extermination of another.

“The roots of inequality, racism, and social marginalization are all grounded in our fear of death,” Chavez said.

In other words, our fear of death is what causes bad death.

With this in mind, the tenets of death positivity and good death could be a step in the right direction towards equalizing access to a good death: Without fear of dying, our world views can open up to include all of humanity. That means simply talking about mortality — getting people to think about and prepare for their own mortal fate — can help put an end to bad death.

This, of course, is a theory that requires a longview, and may not resonate as we watch the phobias and -isms that cause bad deaths progress. But still, idealistic as it may be, our ability to give everyone a good death ultimately lies in our ability to see each other’s humanity. And as Hennessy believes, death itself can facilitate this compassion.

“If death is a condition of being human, can’t it make us more human in a way that we see and feel the humanity of others, and then make decisions based on that shared humanity?” she asks. “In this way we might recognize the vulnerability of others and understand how we implicate each other in the process.”

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