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The Order of the Good Death

Published: 11/16/2013
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The Order of the Good Death addresses the taboo subject (Image via Flickr Creative Commons / The Wandering Angel)

Perhaps the saddest fact of life is death. Try as we might to fight it or postpone it through diets, exercise, medicines and surgeries, death always wins.

For many people, the subject of death is taboo, according to Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death. Grief is hidden or denied. Bodies are dealt with behind closed doors. Final wishes are never aired.

She wants to change that.

Doughty, a mortician, started the Order in 2011. It now has about 30 members scattered across the globe. They are funeral professionals, artists, musicians, academics and writers. Their goal: to get people talking about and preparing for their own departures from this life.

"Death acceptance is constant work," said Doughty, 29, whose collection of YouTube "Ask a Mortician" videos have garnered thousands of views. "It's like the monster under the bed that's only scary because it's dark and makes noises and no one's willing to face it."

Doughty's first job in a mortuary forced her to face her fears of death and convinced her she needed to establish a "relationship" with the Grim Reaper.

"The cold, dead bodies told me that everyone I knew, from my mother to my dear friends to myself, were going to die," she wrote in the mission statement on OrderoftheGoodDeath.com. "Some sooner than later. Cruelly annihilated out of my life. It is hard to begin a relationship with someone you consider so capricious and unfair,"

Facing one's mortality isn't morbid, Order members say. It's practical, thoughtful, and can contribute to a fuller life while it lasts.

"We're trying to keep death as far away from us as possible and we're completely unprepared for dealing with the reality of it when it comes into our lives," said Order member Megan Rosenbloom, a 31-year-old medical librarian at the University of Southern California. "Death is the greatest mystery. That's why it's so scary. Interacting with it can make it less frightening."

Rosenbloom helped organize the Order's first "Death Salon". The weeklong event held in Los Angeles last month was "a hybrid of an academic conference and a public event," she said. It featured formal lectures, musical performances, readings and appropriately themed foods.

Among the issues discussed at the Death Salon were the different ways to dispose of a corpse. Rosenbloom says some people believe that embalming is mandatory. They can't get beyond the idea of a casket in the ground or mausoleum, or cremation and an urn on the mantel.

But there are many more options. Some may be off-putting to Westerners –– such as Tibetan sky burial, which involves chopping up the corpse and leaving it on mountains so vultures can feast on it before flying away. But other ideas, such as public cremation, may intrigue. (At least one Colorado business can make that possible. See crestone-end-of-life.org for more details.)

The cremated remains of loved ones can be turned into jewelry or paintings. They can be shot into the air on rockets. Even burial at sea is possible, if you follow government guidelines.

"Doing something special to remember someone when they die is really helpful for the living," said Rosenbloom. "You don't want someone you love treated like everybody else."

She plans to donate her body to USC for use by medical students because "it's totally keeping with who I am." Her husband knows exactly what she wants. "He's not certain what he wants for himself, but it's a conversation we'll keep continuing to have."

Preparedness –– via prepaying for a funeral or pre-arranging every thing from the burial plot to the music played –– can be one of the greatest gifts the dead can leave the living, said Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental, a green funeral home in Seattle.

"I've never seen a family fight in a funeral home that didn't involve a dollar sign," he said.

Planning one's own farewell is also another step towards death acceptance and a sense of peace.

"When you take the mystery out of final arrangements –– What happens to my body, my temporal shell, at the end of this ride? –– it takes away some of that anxiety," said Jorgenson, who is 39.

Doughty and Jorgenson are about to release a new Web series called Is it legal? It will feature questions such as "Can I be taxidermied?" "Caitlin gets that question a lot," Jorgenson said.

He hopes the Order of the Good Death helps "open up a dialogue and make death a conversation topic."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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