A “positive death movement”

We live in a death-denying culture, and Christian theology can add to this denial by over-emphasizing eternal life. This issue explores our thinking, beliefs, hopes, fears and rituals around death so we can lean more faithfully into life.

The New York Times recently featured the death of Ms. Shatzi Weisberger. This prominence was not because Ms. Weisberger was famous, but because she was a proponent of the “positive death movement,” which was started by people who wanted to break the taboos around discussing death. The movement has grown online as people gather for virtual “Death Cafes,” follow YouTubers like “Ask the Mortician,” and download apps like “We Croak” — in case you need five daily reminders that you are going to die.

Supporters of this movement share a common goal: break the silence that’s around death and impoverishes our life.

Reading about these efforts, I found myself both fascinated and frustrated. To me, this is an example of secular society stepping in to address a need the church can and should meet.

An Outlook supporter in Houston is serving on a committee that will decide whether her church will invest in adding a memorial garden and columbarium. The committee has been discussing burial trends. More people are comfortable with cremation. The environmental movement has raised awareness about the damage vaults, caskets and toxic embalming chemicals do to the earth. Urban churches need to consider space, land use and reuse as they discern the best way to honor their dead. So when this Outlook supporter said, “Teri, you should do an issue on death,” I agreed.

As many of the contributors to this issue write, we live in a death-denying culture. Death is scary, tragic; it’s the deepest loss we grieve. Our avoidance of the topic is understandable. But church should be the place where we can give voice to our fear and grief and the questions that accompany these feelings. What happens when we die? Or, as we die? How can we prepare ourselves and our loved ones for our death? How can we live faithfully knowing that we will eventually die? We have a theology of resurrection, but what about a theology of death?

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, as we walk with Jesus to his death on the cross, give opportunities to discuss, study and preach about death. As a pastor, my heart always swelled with emotion when I touched my ashy thumb to the forehead of beloved church members, my own husband and children, as I recited the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There’s no escaping the inevitability of death when it is writ large in ash upon our foreheads. There’s also no better context than the church to remember that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.

I wrote an article about green burials for this issue after touring Duck Run Natural Cemetery, just outside my home in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Glenn Jennell, the general manager at Duck Run, drove me around the cemetery in an ATV on a cold January morning. Glenn knows cemeteries can be scary places, especially for kids. The wildlife at Duck Run helps with that, he said. The stocked pond encouraged mourners to visit with their fishing poles, and the mallard ducks attend every graveside service. But Glenn still thinks we ought to teach Death 101 classes so people can learn they don’t need to be afraid.

“All you need is a little bit of faith,” he said quietly, turning to smile at me as he steered our vehicle around the carefully tended plots. I smiled in response to Glenn’s understated, yet reassuring statement. What a gift our faith is in the face of death — a positive death movement founded in God’s eternal love.