What's Death Positivity and How Can It Help Us? A Conversation with Sarah Chavez

Sarah Chavez knows a thing or two about death. She is a prominent voice in the death positive movement, which aims to change the way we talk about death – removing fear and taboo and replacing it with an understanding that being curious about, talking about, and experiencing death are all normal parts of life. She is the executive director of the Order of the Good Death, an organization aimed at destigmatizing death, fostering healthy conversations about its importance, looking at loss and death through an intersectional lens, and considering how things like race, money, and gender identity⁠ impact how we experience death.

Sarah is also a dear friend of mine. I found her work by way of her friend and colleague Caitlin Doughty – author, funeral home director, and host of the YouTube series, Ask A Mortician. As a formerly death-phobic child, Caitlin’s channel opened up a whole new world for me; one where this looming and terrifying experience of dying was demystified. As I ventured further into the world of death positivity, I met Sarah, and began incorporating death positivity into both my work and my life – writing about it for Sarah’s website Death & the Maiden, which examines death through a feminist lens, and by opening up conversations with my friends and loved ones about death, death care, and the macabre.

One of the many things I admire about Sarah is her ability to take her work and tailor it to the needs of a specific community. She is passionate about ensuring everyone – regardless of their gender identity, immigration status, location, financial status, race, or disability – can have empowering conversations about death. Be it the current news cycle, or your personal life, we are living in a time where death and loss are everywhere we look: at the border, during school shootings, and in our television shows (content note on that link: suicide) for example. With this in mind, I wanted to talk with Sarah about how young people could better understand death, how they could better talk to each other about it and support one another through it.

Can you explain what death positivity is? What does it mean to you?

Simply put, it is acknowledging that death is a normal part of life, and that engaging with death demonstrates a natural curiosity about the human condition.

What made you so passionate about death positivity, and death care?

So many things, but primarily because for me, death positivity is a social justice⁠ issue.

There's this theory called Terror Management Theory (TMT): it suggests that all of our actions are potentially motivated by the fact that we are aware of our inevitable deaths. Death is scary!

The anxiety surrounding the fact that we will cease to exist is what motivates all of our actions, largely in an effort to create a legacy – something important that will live on after we are dead, like having kids, or through our work or accomplishments. We also seek out⁠ things that make us feel important, superior, or part of something bigger than ourselves, ideas that give us a sense of identity⁠ , belonging, and meaning because being a part of something makes us feel good. However, this can have dark side.

Frequent reminders of death – which we’ve been getting a lot of through constant exposure on social media to coverage of mass shootings, police brutality, reports of violent deaths, etc. – these bring up all our fears of death. When this happens, studies have shown that people become fearful and act aggressively toward others who are not like them – people who don’t share the same cultural or national background, religious or political beliefs, even petty things like likes and dislikes. Then when that anxiety about death kicks in, people tend to double down on their fears and beliefs, and in a desperate attempt to preserve their self-esteem/worth, they can end up hating or fearing those who are not like them.

Being more self-aware of our fear of death can help us make better decisions, take personal responsibility for our behavior, and evaluate why we might hold some of our beliefs or values. This can help us to make fact-based, not fear based, decisions and hopefully be kinder to ourselves and others.

Can you talk a little bit about the similarities between death taboo and sex⁠ taboo — and how they hinder our ability to have honest, healthy conversations about these issues?

Death positivity is similar to sex positivity – both are subjects that are natural human experiences and are integral to our lives, yet our society treats them as taboos, often shaming or stigmatizing discussions about sex and death. Because these are subjects we don’t talk about there’s a lot of misinformation and fear, which lead to unhealthy relationships with our sexuality and our mortality. By being open, curious, and educating ourselves about sex and death we can live and die better.

Another important parallel between sex positivity and death positivity has to do with choice, bodily autonomy⁠ and consent⁠ . Part of being death positive is respecting and honoring other people’s choices about their bodies at the end of life and in death.

What advice would you have for a young person on how to talk about death and dying without shame or stigma?

Death has been the subject of countless songs, poems, books, art, movies, games, etc. for centuries and across every culture. It is a fascinating subject! How can you not be curious and fascinated about this profound and mysterious life event that will impact you and everyone you know? That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary and painful, and confusing and awkward – it is, but isn’t that even more of a reason to talk and learn about it?

Not judging other cultures, religions, death rituals, or beliefs and asking questions is important, as well as admitting your own fears. I work with death every day and even I have terrible death anxiety.

Remember that death informs how we want to live – because our time is limited, it’s a valuable resource that can help us identify the things and people that mean the most to us.

Can you talk about how death positivity intersects with forms of marginalization? How does privilege affect access to proper death care — especially in ways we might not automatically think about?

A lot of people like to say “We’re all equal in death” but we aren’t.

The fact is, some bodies, often ones from marginalized communities, are placed closer to experiencing bad or preventable deaths than others. There are many individuals and communities whose ability to access care and choices are limited, and the systems in place often discriminate or are not as accessible to others based on gender⁠ , sexuality, race and class.

Here are a few specific examples:

  • The life expectancy of a Black trans woman is between 30 and 35 years old. This is horrific and absolutely unacceptable. In contrast, the life expectancy of a white male in America is mid-late 70s.
  • People in the LGBTQ⁠ community are at greater risk of abuse at the end of life, which can lead to a myriad of problems, including premature mortality.
  • Trans and nonbinary⁠ people can be vulnerable to misgendering and deadnaming in death if their families do not accept them for their true selves. Without a document called an advance directive, which allows you to legally designate someone to carry out your end of life and death wishes, control of your body automatically reverts to next of kin.
  • Femicide, the intentional killing of a woman-identified individual who is killed for their gender, is at epidemic proportions, and home, which should be a site of safety and refuge is the most dangerous place for women. For indigenous women, the threat of death is even greater.
  • In the United States Black women are dying in childbirth at nearly four times the rate of White women. As for Black infants? They’re dying at about twice the rate of white infants. Racism is fueling these deaths.
  • Reproductive justice and death are also intertwined. It has been argued that the anti-choice movement manipulates our fear of and unwillingness to talk about death.

I know we’re talking about death a lot here, but for me, the core of the death positive movement is about improving the quality of all our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how school shootings are forcing young people to confront death and how we can help them develop the tools to cope in this political landscape — especially as so many of them are using their voices to mobilize for change, like the students of Parkland. What would you tell young people who are affected by this kind of mass violence — even those who see it on the news and are afraid it might happen to them? And what advice would you have on balancing self-care and coping with being an advocate on behalf of your peers?

First of all, I would say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you have to experience this, and that this is your reality.

Listen and believe each other’s experiences and fears. It is important that we validate those fears and not brush them off with “Chances are, that won’t happen.” Terrible things do happen and in order to change them we need to acknowledge this fact and talk about solutions – this is especially important for adults⁠ to hear. Although I think it is admirable that so many teens are speaking up and becoming advocates for change, young people should not be the ones who carry the burden of enacting that change - but for some, being an active part of a solution can be really beneficial and help feel like you have some control in a situation that often feels like you have none.

We need to create and “hold” space for our own and others’ fears and grief surrounding tragedies, or anything we feel grief over like a breakup, disappointments, etc. That means listening, being consciously present with that person, withholding judgement, not offering advice unless asked, and not trying to fix them or cheer them up. It is fine to say “This sucks, and I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m here for you.” Just know that being there is what’s important.

Don’t forget to validate your own feelings! It is normal and reasonable to be scared, hurt, and angry – you are allowed to NOT be ok. It is also fine to want to escape – go for a walk, binge a series, read a book, hang out with your cat, text your friends.

What advice would you have for a young person who’s recently lost a loved one?

First, I hope you are being supported in your grief, but I also know that often that’s not the case. Find a death buddy – a trusted person you can safely share your fears, curiosity and grief with. Aisha Adkins has some suggestions on finding the right person in this article.

Anger, depression, and confusion are all part of grief. Know that contrary to what you may have heard, there are no rules or stages to grief. Just like love, our feelings don’t dissipate when someone dies. We continue to love them and miss them and reach for them. Grief is evidence of love and just like the love you have for them will always stay with you, so will some aspect of grief.

Something that really surprised me is how deeply grief impacts your physical body and your mental capacity and that the symptoms can last for years. People can experience everything from insomnia, inability to focus, and have difficulty remembering things.

How can young people support each other through death and grieving?

Be present, acknowledge and bear witness to that pain, don’t try to “fix ” the person or make things “right,” because you can’t. I know this all sounds hard, because it is – it’s hard to watch someone you care about be in pain. Don’t be afraid of saying the “wrong” thing or about being awkward. As a society that avoids death and grief we just haven’t been taught these skills but you can learn them. Here’s a great place to start!

What advice would you have for a young person who is interested in death care but doesn’t know where to start?

The YouTube series Ask a Mortician is great and covers a lot of ground.

Look to your community. A lot of the information that is out there on death, dying, and grief centers cis, white, Christian experiences. If you are one of the millions of people that do not identify this way, it can be challenging to find information that supports you or reflects your experience. Many communities have information, workshops, or gatherings that address the needs of their specific communities. If there’s something you’re really passionate about you can get involved – hospice volunteering, at your local cemetery, or protests and vigils are good places to start.

How can thinking differently about death help us think differently about our bodies in general?

Two main things. First, taking control and making conscious decisions about what happens to your body when you die is an extension of being body positive, and if you have a femme⁠ body, it’s also a feminist act.

We’ve had our bodies subjected to standards, rules, and laws created by men our entire lives and we often modify our bodies to appeal to the male gaze so we can be “valued” in the patriarchal society we exist in. You can ensure that your death reflects the things that are important to you in life – environmental justice, feminism, anti-capitalism, decolonized rituals, your religious beliefs – whatever you choose, let that final act be one you decide, don’t just give that control away. I am passionate about everyone being empowered to make decisions regarding their bodies in life, and believe those rights should also extend to the body in death.

Second, as a person who lives with disabilities it has been hard not to be angry and resentful about the ways my body is different and the things I miss out on. What has helped me is remembering that my body connects me to my ancestors who contributed to the unique individual that I am. So, when I care for my own body, I also feel like I am caring for them. In a small way, gestures of self-care like eating well, resting, preparing myself when I know a stressful event is coming up, all work toward healing physical and emotional traumas of my ancestors.

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The Iranian Revolution was co-opted by the clerics who then claimed as an achievement the mass covering of an entire nation’s women’s hair. Who owns my hair, let alone my body, when a revolution in which women fought alongside men soon after declaring victory, enforced hijab? When you shave the hair under that enforced hijab, are you then the revolution of one, defying, disobeying, and disrupting? When you rip off that compulsory hijab in public and shave off your hair in public, are you finally completing the revolution that the theocrats and the misogynists stole from you?