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Has Death Become a Fad?

How Swedish death cleaning and discussing mortality can teach us about the way we live.

In a recent long read from The Guardian, writer Marisa Meltzer explores the rising interest in all-things death-related, and discusses the possibility that “dying well has become a defining obsession of our time.” Meltzer writes about death trends ranging from cemetery yoga to death doulas to eco-friendly burial methods and ultra-personalized funerals.

While Meltzer’s assertion that “death is hot right now” might sound odd to some, others would argue that it is a natural and positive subject. As Thrive Global founder and CEO Arianna Huffington wrote in her book Thrive, “In today’s highly polarized times…death is the one absolutely universal thing we all have in common.”

And yet, as Arianna puts it, “it seldom occurs to us to bond over the massive dying elephant in the room: our shared mortality.” She asks, “Where are our culture’s preparations for leaving life with gratitude and grace?”

Meltzer’s piece focuses extensively on one such type of preparation. Döstädning is the popular “Swedish practice of ‘death cleaning,’” which involves applying a “simple formula” to deal with your possessions before you die. Meltzer spoke with Margareta Magnusson, the author of the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, which, Meltzer writes, is “responsible for spreading the death-cleaning gospel.”

As Meltzer notes, Magnusson’s book “could be pitched as ‘Marie Kondo does hygge.’” While Magnusson’s book may ride Kondo’s wave of popularity, the book’s core message is about mortality, not tidying. “The message was: we just have to accept that one day we will die,” Magnusson’s literary agent told Meltzer. “Either our loved ones will begrudge us, or they will hold on to this wonderful memory and love us for sorting everything out.” It isn’t easy to face your own mortality, but handling the legacy of a loved one who has died, without any guidance, can be even harder.

One of Thrive Global’s partners is Death Over Dinner, founded by Michael Hebb, which brings people from around the world together to “engage in an open and empowering conversation about the end of life.” And it’s important to have that conversation while we still can. “Our families are going to eventually lose us,” Hebb wrote in a piece for Thrive Global, “If we don’t discuss what we want our final days to look like — where we want to be, who’s around us — we’re guaranteeing that our own wishes go unhonored. If we delay these conversations until the darkest, most desperate times in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, or funeral homes, we have done ourselves and our families a great disservice.”

Sorting your possessions and preparing logistics is only the beginning of Magnusson’s döstädning book. In addition to guiding people through the difficult process of getting their affairs in order, the book is also about accepting death. “Publishers, in particular, have latched on to the trend,” Meltzer notes. “Books about death are nothing new, of course, but the pace at which they’re arriving seems to have accelerated.”

When Thrive Global Staff Writer Shelby Lorman spoke with D.S. Moss, host of a podcast centered around death called The Adventures of Memento Mori, he told her that “everyone has a story about death” and that most people who hear about his podcast want to share theirs. He says death is “a topic that needs permission to begin” but “once the instigation barrier has been removed, people actually like talking about it.” They welcome the opportunity to talk about what has commonly been seen as a taboo topic.

Addressing this difficult subject has its benefits. “Talking about death is also talking about life,” Hebb says, “It may seem paradoxical, but talking about death can give us an immediate and renewed vitality.” He cites a 2013 study showing that “talking about death makes it funnier.”

Podcast host Moss has seen this effect in his own life. “The practice of meditating on my death has been an incredibly powerful tool to realize that about 85 percent of the ‘stuff’ that consumed my emotional and mental energy is either made up narrative or just not worth my time,” he said. “Memento Mori is Latin for being mindful that you will die, and when applied and practiced on a daily basis, that mindfulness shows up in how you live.”

As Meltzer writes, “Death cleaning is possibly more potent than other wellbeing trends in that it taps into deep emotions: fear, guilt, regret.” But she questions whether “the death industry exploits people’s fears of inadequacy.”

Exploitative or not, these trends are furthering a necessary discourse on the subject of mortality.

Read more from Meltzer here

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