What Determines a Good Death? Core Factors Explained

Published November 9, 2020
Birds flying to the light

Terms to describe death are presented with gentler, kinder descriptions. Euphemisms such as "passing away" or "falling asleep" create a nicer image of death but avoid its realities and consequences. Because death is a subject that is avoided or danced around, it is no wonder that the majority of people are afraid of their own death or the death of a loved one. A movement known as "good death" or the "death positive movement" seeks to remedy its issues.

What Is a Good Death?

There are a number of beliefs the good death movement seeks to embrace. Many of these philosophies seek to change the avoidance of the subject of death that many cultures promote. Here are some of their tenets:

  • Hiding death and dying behind euphemisms does more harm than good to society.
  • The culture of silence around death should give way to discussion, gatherings, creativity, art, and scholarship.
  • Talking about an individual's inevitable death is not morbid but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.
  • A dead body is not dangerous, and people should be empowered to be involved in care for their own dead.
  • Laws that govern death, dying and end-of-life care should ensure that a person's wishes are honored regardless of sexual, gender, racial, or religious identity.
  • An individual's death should be handled in such a way that it does no harm to the environment.
  • Family and friends should be informed of an individual's end-of-life wishes.
  • Honest and open advocacy around death can make a difference to change culture.
Three generations holding hands

Origins of the Death Positive Movement

The death positive movement is a social and philosophical thrust encouraging people to speak more openly about death, dying, and corpses. The movement wants to speak in the midst of silence, decreasing anxiety and misinformation about death-related topics. Their hope is that doing so will increase diversity in options that are available as the end of life approaches. The history of the movement has these highlights.

  • The term was popularized by Caitlin Doughty as a word-play on the idea of sex positivity.
  • The work of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, inspires and challenges the movement.
  • The movement is fueled and spread through social media articles, videos, and TED talks where Doughty and others present their beliefs and allow for discussions.

Examples of the Movement at Work

The ideas of a good death, one that is beneficial and supportive of the families and friends left behind and of the environment, have been around for years. Here are several examples of how open and honest discussion can be seen in society today.

  • Death Over Dinner, a movement founded by restaurant owners and authors, organizes people to have dinner parties to talk about mortality and options for care for the dying. Over 200,000 dinners have been planned and held.
  • End Well, an organization of physicians and film producers, contributes to the movement by hosting an annual conference with workshops and presentations. They also sponsor media solutions to use, inform, and motivate people.
  • Funeral homes and funeral directors are offering more options promoting the idea of a green funeral. Green funerals are pared-down, environmentally friendly options for people who are looking to cut down their contribution to the carbon footprint. Almost ¾ of funeral homes say there is an increasing demand for green funerals.
  • Green burials do away with the embalming chemicals, extra cement, steel, or other materials that are not biodegradable. The funerals usually involve planting of some sort of piece of nature, and a burial which allows the body to return to nature.
  • Despite popular opinion, embalming is usually not necessary and is only used to preserve the remains for public display. The chemicals allow the body to look more natural. It tends to be completely cosmetic.
  • A digital app was created to remind users five times daily that they are going to die, and suggests ways they can live in the moment and contribute to the principles of the movement.
  • Several companies have started to explore the possibilities of turning human remains into a useable soil.
  • More people are deciding to donate their bodies to science. The sacrifice of public funeral displays for the opportunity to allow study and observation allows an individual to feel a real contribution to the process of growing and gaining through information.
Hand holding tree on nature field grass

Deciding How to Die

The good death or death positive movement encourages discussion around one of the most silent subjects of culture, death. Through creative means of expression and conversation, people are able to share their personal values as they approach death. Families and friends are comforted by the contribution these efforts can make to the culture and the environment.

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What Determines a Good Death? Core Factors Explained