Women have always been at the forefront when it comes to caring for the sick and dying. And there was also a time when women were front and centre of the death industry, though it was hardly called an industry back then, which is not to undervalue the commitment of these women ‘workers’. It was due to their voluntary community values that made it vastly different to the commercial profit motivated industry of today.
Back then, the ‘industry’ was more about the industriousness of the women who went about caring for the dead and caring for the immediate family and friends. Some years ago this changed. This story by Sarah Chavez: The Story of Death Is the Story of Women (Yes, Issue 91, 2019) charts how another change is taking place and how women are reclaiming their roles as the most appropriate people to lead us to a better place including a better death.
Chavez reports that: Olivia Bareham … “is just one of many women who are disrupting the death paradigm by challenging our traditional funerary practices and advocating for transparency, eco-friendly options, and family involvement. While White patriarchy has spent the past hundred years shutting the doors and pulling the curtain—obfuscating and profiting from one of life’s most significant milestones—modern women are questioning whom our current system is serving and telling the funeral industry that its time is up.
Olivia Bareham has long sought to ease some of the fear and suffering surrounding death and dying. In 2005 she founded The Sacred Crossings Institute for Conscious Dying, where she educates and and empowers families to care for their deceased loved ones and create meaningful home funerals. Along with Caitlin Doughty, mortician, author and moderator of the websites: Order of the Good Death and Ask the Mortician they are two of those shedding light on the ‘mysteries’ of death and driving a wedge into what has been a closed shop industry. Chavez says:
Feminist death advocates argue that the $20 billion funeral industry thrives on our society’s reluctance to face, or even think about, death. Although our fear of death is nothing new, our modern denial of death is.
Our current unfamiliarity with natural death has become more informed by horror tropes—including the dead returning to haunt us, or corpses suddenly reanimating to grasp at the living—than by facts. According to Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, awareness of our mortality haunts us and motivates us. Becker argues that our actions are motivated by this fear, and in a desperate effort to mitigate our existential terror of ceasing to exist, we seek out distractions. We engage in what he calls “immortality projects” that help us establish legacies that will live on after we are dead, often through our work or by having children.
Because of this fear, and the established systems that shield us from healthy engagement with death, we’ve become death-and grief-illiterate. As a result, we have industry-led funerals that leave little room for meaningful family involvement and require costly products and services that are often unnecessary and can harm the environment.
Our recent cultural shift to ignoring or immediately disposing of our dead takes us further away from the reality of dying and death.
In countries like the US and Australia, says Caitlin Doughty, we have “created a hard boundary between ourselves and death, [but] for most of the world a softer line exists, creating space for the living to work through grief, begin to comprehend death, and come to terms with the fact that the bonds we’ve established with others do not dissipate at the moment of death.” Chavez sums up with these words …
In the U.S. [read Australia], we’ve handed over this sacred space surrounding the corpse to the funeral industry. The women reclaiming this space are acting in resistance.
It is clear that our society’s current denial of death is not working.
With women leading the way, we can create a future of death care that will improve not only how future generations die, but how they live. This is a legacy, and a feminist one at that, for which we can all be proud.
For the full story click on the link: Women and the story of death
Within an Australian context the most outspoken advocates for more community involvement and less industry intervention, include Zenith Virago (Death Walker) and Molly Carlisle (Death Talker). For more click on the links: Natural Death Care Centre and Death Talker