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


Death is a natural and universal process. All living things die, including humans, and we have developed a variety of ways of dealing with and applying meaning to both the social and physical processes of death. Different groups conceive of death and corpses differently, assigning unique meanings that often reflect societal understandings of the natural world. Processes of corpse care and disposition serve to connect the living and the dead, and to imbue corpses with social meaning. In the United States, there are numerous ways people approach the physical realities of death and relate to corpses. Using this understanding, one may employ deathways as a lens through which to examine the varied ways people in the United States relate to the “natural world.” These varied deathways, or culturally contingent ways of developing knowledge about and navigating the physical realities of death, reflect the varied ways people relate to and conceive of nature.

Like many parts of American culture, the contemporary, mainstream method of corpse disposition has resulted from around 150 years of technocratic progress and industrialization. The bureaucratized and professionalized funeral industry parallels modern ways of interacting with and connecting to nature. This approach to death care and corpse disposition is not universal in the United States, and some groups are quite critical of it.

Advocates for natural burial and death positivity argue for rethinking American deathways. This takes different forms, with the natural burial movement arguing for a more ecological approach within the current system. People who align with death positivity, on the other hand, argue for a restructuring of the death care industry, and question whether a profit-driven institution provides the best way to engage with death and corpses. These two movements reflect discourse in the broader cultural context about how Americans might live more ecologically, and whether capitalism is a structure that can exist sustainably.

Of course, there are cultural groups in the United States who have long traditions of dealing with death in ways not characterized by Western narratives of technology and progress. One such group is the Blackfeet, who engage with death in ways that are informed by their traditions of story and ceremony, and which reflect their distinct and culturally significant ways of relating to the natural world.

These varied approaches to deathways perform naturework through imbuing the natural processes of death, such as decomposition, with cultural meaning. How do different death and burial practices separate the living and dead from, or connect them to, the “natural” world? In this same vein of questioning, deathways can also be understood to reinforce or challenge the Western conception of a human-nature dichotomy. Corpses do not fit nicely into this binary idea of humans separate and independent from the natural world. Rather, they can be understood to straddle the line between social and natural, existing in a sort of liminal stage – no longer human, but still recognizable as belonging to the social world previously. 

This page has paths:

This page references: