Talking about death is no longer only for the morbid Wednesday Addams wannabes among us – at least not according to a social movement known as “death positivity,” which argues that people should actively think and talk about their own mortality. After all, death is the only guarantee in life. (Well, besides taxes, of course.) And next weekend, from September 16 to 18, some of the biggest proponents of death positivity will arrive in Houston for Death Salon Film Festival.
The Los Angeles-based organization Death Salon aims to resurrect the tradition of intellectual salons, where people would gather to discuss the ideas of the day, but its events focus on one specific topic: death and mortality. Death Salon will bring that discussion to Texas with Death Salon Film Festival, a collection of short films centered around death, which will be hosted at Houston's Aurora Picture Show. But the festivities aren't limited to just movies. In fact, Houston's Death Salon is a weekend-long event, featuring everything from a lecture on the history of “erotic hauntings” to a trip to Houston's National Museum of Funeral History to a bar quiz on all things death.
Feeling a little weirded out? You're not alone – many people find the idea of devoting a whole weekend to death to be, well, ghoulish. “Nobody knows how they're going to die. Nobody knows when they're going to die. So you live in that constant fear of the unknown,” said Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History and a Death Salon Film Festival panelist. “And to talk about it is to validate it. To talk about it is to make it real. And people tend to avoid that which they fear.”
But fear doesn't make death just go away. That's what Megan Rosenbloom, director of Death Salon, wants people to realize. Her organization's goal, she said, is to break the taboo on discussing death in polite company.
This taboo is fading, if slowly, agreed everyone that the Houston Press interviewed for this article. No one knows exactly why – maybe it's the Internet giving people access to more information about death, maybe it's the fact that the largest American generation yet is now approaching old age. But Houstonians are definitely interested in talking about their mortality: Houston's Death Salon sold out within days of tickets going on sale.
Rosenbloom identifies as death positive, and sees Death Salon and the Order of the Good Death – Death Salon's sister group, which has similar goals – as part of the death positive movement. “Death positivity, like sex positivity, is breaking the silence and opening up conversations and engaging with these ideas,” Rosenbloom explained. She works as a medical librarian at the University of Southern California, and initially became interested in death as a frequent side effect of historical medical practices. (One of her ongoing projects is identifying books bound in human skin.) Death positivity, she said, is an effort to help people realize that they have options when it comes to their death and what happens to their body. For example, burial and cremation are not the only ways to properly dispose of a body, even if many people have been taught that.
“So opening up those conversations makes people realize like, in philosophical but also completely practical terms, they have more agency around death than they realize,” Rosenbloom said. “And that can be very comforting to people.”
Kathleen Wetsel worked as a hospice nurse for years and knows first-hand what can happen when people don't talk about the practical side of death until it's too late. “I've seen problems with family members that don't agree. 'Should we do this with Grandma? Should we do that with Grandma?'” Wetsel said. Though it might be scary to think about loved ones dying, families must talk about funeral arrangements and living wills. “They need to have that conversation about, 'What is quality of life to you?'”
Wetsel now runs a monthly Death Cafe in southwest Houston, to encourage those conversations. Death Cafes, which are not affiliated with Death Salon, are meeting places for people to get together and chat about all aspects of mortality. Each Death Cafe is run totally independently, though they are based off common guidelines that mandate that no Death Cafe can push any specific agenda about how to best deal with death. What matters in a Death Cafe is the process of having discussion and debate, not coming to a conclusion. (According to the guidelines, though, food and drinks are highly encouraged – Wetsel's Death Cafe meets at an IHOP.)
“We laughed, it wasn't like we were being super serious and that there was no humor to be found,” said Cassie Manley, who used to run a Death Cafe that met in east downtown Houston, adding that it wasn't just “a bunch of weirdos in the basement.” Manley first became interested in learning more about death after the passing of a loved one at 21, and ended up starting Houston's Death Cafe when she realized the city didn't have one. Over the years she ran the Death Cafe – Manley had to quit recently, as she was too busy – people of all ages and backgrounds would come, she said. They'd discuss everything from the funeral industry to potential afterlives to science fiction-style ways to possibly extend life.
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Yet when Manley, who also identifies as death positive, told people she ran a Death Cafe, the responses weren't always warm. “I expected people to be as curious as I was. Most of the time people were just like weirded out and wanted to change the subject,” she recalled. For a city as big as Houston, she said, she was always surprised that there wasn't more interest in Death Cafes and similarly-themed events. However, she thinks there might be more “deathlings” – as the Order of the Good Death calls its adherents – in Houston than people think. Manley plans to attend Death Salon to meet some.
“In any state, in any community, there are small groups of people who are working towards [death positivity] but how visible they are to other people, to the community at large, it varies a lot,” Rosenbloom said. She added, “There are a lot of people who are interested in these topics who feel marginalized by their interest, and when you get together with people who are also interested and they won't think that your interest...is weird, then people tend to feel very relaxed and comfortable.”
Rosenbloom hopes that Houston Death Salon attendees come away knowing more about mortality than when they arrived. If people know they have choices, she believes, then they can make their deaths count. Returning to her analogy of sex positivity and death positivity, Rosenbloom said, “There's not just missionary.”
Death Salon starts September 16, with a lecture and bar quiz at The Avant Garden. On September 17, a panel on “Death in Texas” will start at 5 p.m. at the Aurora Picture Show. On Saturday 18, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., there will be a “field trip” to the National Museum of Funeral History. Tickets are sold out for these events, but as of press time you can still buy tickets to the film festival, which will take place at 7 p.m. on September 17, at the Aurora Picture Show. Tickets are available for $10, or are free for Aurora members.