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Death and dying in the modern age

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In April, San Francisco hosted Reimagine End of Life, a week of programs centering on positive connections between life and death. (Courtesy photo)


A couple of Fridays ago I got the news that my best friend Jeremy’s dad had suddenly passed away.

Jeremy is basically my hetero lifemate. We’ve been friends since second grade, lived together in college in Santa Cruz and were housemates during our twenties in the Mission. His kids are my niece and nephew. He’s as close as non-blood-related people get to being family.

My schedule is pretty flexible so I was able to fly down to San Diego, where he lives now, to be there for support. But I flew down for selfish reasons as well; his dad’s death made me think about the mortality of my own parents and made me realize I needed to spend more time with them.

I’ve been incredibly lucky so far in the realm of death. While I’ve had grandparents pass away and had some friends and acquaintances move on to whatever comes next, nobody very close to me has died. To be honest, even writing that last sentence makes me a little nervous, like I’m testing my luck and might curse myself for saying it out loud. So just in case, let me follow that with kinehora, the Yiddish phrase for “knock on wood.”

Americans don’t have a very good relationship with death. Compared to cultures in Latin America and Asia where people live with the spirits of their ancestors, it’s almost like we do their best to ignore that death is even a thing. A hundred and fifty years ago we were far more familiar with it. Most people lived on farms and saw livestock die and get slaughtered, and witnessed family members pass away at home since medicine wasn’t that advanced and hospitals were often far away.

But we’ve spent the past century and half insulating ourselves from death, almost making it a taboo subject.

Living in a culture that acknowledges death doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when someone passes away, but it does give people a better framework with which to accept it.

Ignoring that death is inevitable doesn’t make it go away, it just gives your world further upheaval when it happens to someone you love.

Lately, though, there have been some really interesting projects drawing attention to the fact that death is unavoidable and helping make it a less taboo subject.

In April, San Francisco hosted a festival called Reimagine End of Life, in which over 100 events exploring the theme took place throughout The City.

Reimagine bills itself as “a community-wide exploration of death and celebration of life through creativity and conversation. Drawing on the arts, spirituality, healthcare and design, we create a weeklong series of events that break down taboos and bring diverse communities together in wonder, preparation, and remembrance.”

Events ranged from comedy shows to art installations to film screenings to lectures by doctors to workshops about how to get your affairs in order. It’s all part of the death- positive movement which is working to destigmatize death and dying in our culture.

Luckily, you don’t need to wait till next year’s festival to begin creatively engaging with the concept of death and dying.

Ned Buskirk started You’re Going to Die (YG2D.com) as a response to the death of his mother. The first event was held in someone’s apartment and it has grown to a monthly series that uses art, music, writing and entertainment to “bring people creatively into the conversation of death & dying, while helping to inspire & empower out of an unabashed embrace of our losses & mortality.” It’s part open mic, part planned performance, and sells out nearly every month.

Years ago, during the show’s early stages, I read a story about the time I found my neighbor dead in my hallway.

Coping with the death of someone you love is one of the hardest things that humans have to endure, but it’s also one of the most universal. These new approaches to celebrating life while embracing death might be just what we need to bring us through those dark times.

Sending out all my love to Jeremy and anyone else out there going through it right now.

Join Stuart’s awesome malling list to stay up on all the work he’s doing: http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList.

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