The Nature of Death in the United States: Varied Deathways Reflect Social Relations with Nature

Green Burial and Death Positivity

Green burial, and death positivity, have become topics of public discourse recently, pushing back against the norms of the last 100 or so years. While not the same movement, the two are intertwined. Both reframe understandings of death and the social meaning of corpses.

The green burial approach argues for a more ecological approach to burial, specifically moving away from products and practices with high environmental impacts. It doesn’t necessarily call for a change in who may interact with corpses, or the industrial system that oversees death practices in the United States. In other words, it still manifests with some bureaucratic capitalist limitations. One organization which advocates for more ecological deathways is the Green Burial Council. This council certifies cemeteries, funeral homes, and product manufacturers as being “environmentally friendly” (Green Burial Council 2016).  It specifically targets the practices of embalming and burial in concrete vaults, as well as casket construction from materials like hardwood and steel. While challenging the status quo, approaches like this still rely on individual responsibility for ecological consumption. It stays within the realm of capitalism, rather than agitating for systemic change. A salient example of this can be found in the article, “How to be Eco-Friendly When You’re Dead,” which concludes thus:

Ultimately, which eco-friendly exit you choose is mostly about personal comfort. And if the choices seem daunting, it’s worth remembering: Even the most energy-intensive acts of burial pale in comparison to the carbon footprint you’re leaving right now. (Palus 2014).

Death positivity is broader, advocating for a less bounded and more personal and varied approach to deathways. Leaders in the death positivity movement (such as Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, and author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) press for three specific changes in American understandings and methods related to death and corpses:
  1. Less separation of the living and the dead;
  2. More individual, hands-on experiences with corpse care;
  3. Increased dialogue about innovative options for corpse disposition (Order of the Good Death 2016).
Advocates for death positivity see increased exposure to death as a positive, life-enhancing thing, much like the need to be more engaged with nature, and avoid sedentary lifestyles. Being in nature makes us happier, and some research shows mindful and intentional contemplation of death can also make us happier (Niemiec, et al. 2010; King, Hicks, and Abdelkhalik 2009). Additionally, the death positivity movement argues for an understanding of death as a natural process, not one to be avoided or hidden. As Caitlin Doughty states, “Death is the most natural thing in the world, and treating it as deviant isn't doing our culture any favors… We don't control nature. We aren't higher-ranking than nature” (quoted in Beck 2015). Our cultural relationship with death is seen as unhealthy because we are typically unwilling to engage with it personally, and instead hide it away in a bounded institution. 

While not the same in goal, or breadth of understanding, the green burial and death positivity movements reflect current discourse about human-nature relations. “Green capitalists,” for example, argue that the current capitalist system can be reconfigured to be ecologically sustainable, while keeping the main structures and institutions in place. There is an obvious parallel to green burials here – aiming to work within the current system, developing regulations and certifications to guarantee some level of eco-friendliness. While aiming for improvement, it continues the commodification of death and corpses.

Death positivity can be seen as parallel to the threads of discourse that question the capitalist system itself, arguing that any system that must grow continuously (both in production and profits) can never be ecologically sustainable. This paradigm resists the idea that the current system can be made to work, instead favoring the dismantling of the system altogether and building a new one. Advocates for death positivity see an industrial approach to death as unnecessary. Doughty (2014) argues that most tasks performed by funeral professionals – with the exception of embalming, which in most cases is not actually necessary, and cremation – can be just as well performed by non-professionals. The entanglement of death care with the capitalist system has facilitated a perceived need (that need being the requirement of a credentialed expert to properly handle a corpse) which drives the profit-driven funeral industry.

This resistance to a capitalist approach to death is very similar to the resistance of social ecologists to the overall modern capitalist system. Social ecology is a system of study and thought that considers ecological problems as social problems first; social ecologists advocate for participatory democracy at the municipal level as a way to develop more agency for individuals and communities, develop methods of actual self-governance, and facilitate local control of resources (Eiglad 2015). They see the current global capitalist system as inherently unsustainable, regardless of what regulations are established, and argue that to solve environmental problems we must first address the human social systems than manifest them. Social ecologists advocate for more participatory and democratic political systems, similar to how the death positivity movement advocates for more agency in the dying and death care processes (Eiglad 2015). 

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