What are the stereotypes about death culture that prevents us from fully accepting what happens to us when we die?


Let’s talk about you and me… Talking about death is not just a morbid hobby. Even before my mom got ill, death was a topic that piqued my interest. Death happens to us all, but somehow we manage to keep the facade of immortality. Outside of Halloween, people seem to avoid the topic. Death happens to villains in Disney movies. The dead are victorian ghosts that haunt old mansions.

Even our image of a corps is clouded by the spectacular green versions you see in zombie movies and shows. Not even a skeleton is safe next to its bright white plastic counterpart that sits in the corner of a biology room, completely ripped off its natural color and probably adorned with a white lab coat and sunglasses (at least ours was at high school).

Noticeably here in the western part of the world (The Netherlands, Europe) we do everything in our power to hide our death. But has this always been the case? In Victorian England, people seemed way more in touch with their future departure from this world. Think of mummy parties where people gathered to unwrap a mummified Egyptian corpse. Women who chose their wedding dress with the idea to repurpose the gown during their own viewing after death. People who were hired as professional mourners during funeral services. Art made of human hair, post-mortem photography, and death dolls. The Victorians had it all. So what has changed?

The short answer: we live longer. Victorian England is from 1837 until 1901, a time when one of three children would die before the age of five. Death was as part of life as living itself was. One could say all the customs surrounding grief and the peak interest in the death, were a way for the Victorians to cope with loss. Also: Spiritualism was at an all high in Victorian England. Talking about and, with the death was not a taboo, it was culture.

However, something else happened after that time in history, that changed our death culture drastically. Taking care of the deceased became a job outside of the family. No longer was it the family that washed the corpse, clothed him/her, and laid him/her to rest in a bed until the funeral. Corporate America came by and changed tradition. And what is popular in America will soon be popular in the western part of Europe.

"This being America—with a buck to be made, and many families no longer drawn to dead bodies in the living room—the modern funeral industry arose to tidy up and gloss over death. It did an effective job, embalming and beautifying the corpse, offering elaborate, expensive, and rot-resistant coffins, and a well polished therapeutic professionalism to cope with the mourning self and grieving relatives."

So, death becomes something society only deals with at certain times. And because of that, little wiggle room is left to mourn at your own pace. When a person dies we remove the body as quickly as possible away from the family. Let the professionals deal with it. But are we not losing something by disregarding the body so rapidly? Are we not lying to ourselves by pretending death only happens to a few, and that it can be handled in an afternoon and a shitload of paperwork? That grief is a custom behind closed doors?

Not every culture is as squeamish as we are. Unfortunately, we consider those customs often gross and wildly disturbing. But perhaps, opening our eyes to other death cultures could make us feel more in touch with our own deaths. Caitlin Doughtly did such a thing by traveling the world to find “the good death”. What do the people of Tana Toraja (Indonesia) win by performing ma’nene a tradition that exhumes their loved ones from the grave each year to redress and clean them? A mother unwrapping the mummified remains of her son to hug and talk to him again seems gruesome to us. But could it be that they would feel the same about us when they would realize we just leave the bodies to rot in the ground?

Or for example, in Japan after the cremation, the family will go to the room behind the oven to pick up the shards of bones that didn’t turn to dust after the cremating. Bones mean more than the dust in the tradition of kotsuage. The family spends a good amount of time collecting the bones with chopsticks to store in an urn. We can not imagine how doing so, would comfort us in times of grief, as we are just not used to finding power in facing the reality of what cremation truly entails (and what will be left before the cremulator pulverize the bones into the same powdery ash).

But as an American family in the book People Who Eat Darkness tells about their experience during Kotsuage, opening up to the custom could provide a relief that they perhaps would not have found in American custom:

"Rather than a neat box of ashes, the Ridgways were confronted with Carita’s calcined skeleton; as the family, their task, a traditional part of every Japanese cremation, was to pick up her bones with the chopsticks and place them in the urn. “Rob [her boyfriend] couldn’t handle it at all,” Nigel [her father] said. “He thought we were monsters, even to think of it. But, perhaps it’s because we were the parents, and she was our daughter . . . It sounds macabre, as I tell you about it now, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It was something emotional. It almost made me feel calmer. I felt as if we were looking after Carita.”

In Mexico, they celebrate their death during the festivities of Días de Los Muertos at the beginning of November. A day when it is believed the dead will return to the land of the living to see if they are still remembered. On the day itself, dinner is cooked, headstones are adorned with flowers and sugary skulls, paper skeletons are being cut out of paper and hung around the house, private shrines are being installed and, the graveyard gets turned into a place of festivities with fireworks and lavishly picnics. In The Netherlands (and most parts of western Europe) we have a holiday with similar background: Allerheiligen, though it is way lesser known and celebrated. On November the second, the Roman Catholic Church will pray for the dead who are still not in heaven. The day is less about the return of the death, and more about helping the death “go on in the afterlife”. In America, they know the day as All Saint’s day.

Though coming from the Catholic Church, the custom of Allerheiligen did deviate around the late middle ages to not fear but romanticize the act of dying. Allerheiligen or All Saint’s day became connected to the allegory of the Danse Macabre (translated as the dance of the death), often an artistic depiction of dancing skeletons, who celebrate the collectivity and universality of death. In other words: no matter who you are in life, death equalizes us all.

Does dancing with a group of skeletons give you comfort? Who knows, whatever works for you. The same goes for taking care of the body after death. Or, attending a memorial service that differs greatly from the one you are used to. Does eating sugary skeletons candy really bring back the death during Dias de Los Muertos? Does a priest really help a lost soul find the gates of heaven again? Who knows. Whatever you believe in. Whatever helps you cope with facing your own mortality and that of the people you love.

What I realize more and more is that there is no right or wrong way of dealing with and talking about death. At least, not when we push aside our own prejudice and, start the conversation. It may sound like a cliche to state “just talk about it”, but it is honestly the biggest hurdle when talking about mortality. It stops us from being able to experience the good death. Because, let us be honest: what makes a good story, if it is not without an (extraordinary) ending.




Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 1, Victorian Religion (2003)



Death, Mourning and Medical Progress, by Daniel Callahan

From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughtly

Sophie Oosterwijk and Stefanie Knoell (2011), Mixed Metaphors. The Danse Macabre in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.