This open mic on death was part of a citywide festival called Reimagine End of Life, coming to New York for the first time. More than 300 events about death took place over a week in city hospitals and comedy clubs and bars and nursing homes. A children’s hospital had parents illuminate lights for children they had lost, and Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians talked about palliative care. The U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, read poems that were elegies to her late mother.
For much of the 20th century, sex was a taboo topic; now death is. But baby boomers are heading toward death, and many in younger generations are watching friends die from overdoses, from cancer, and from suicide.
Cultural historian Lawrence Samuel, writing in Psychology Today, predicted a social crisis as the United States faces a wave of baby boomer deaths in coming decades: “The emerging ‘death-centric’ society will be a period of considerable turmoil, perhaps equivalent to that of the countercultural 1960s and 1970s.”
Matthew McCullough, pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tenn., urges more Christian discussion of death in his new book Remember Death. The Puritans, he notes, would walk through graveyards to go to church, a regular reminder of mortality. Gravestones would be engraved with the Latin phrase Memento mori, or “Remember death.” Now American culture has detached itself from death unlike any culture in history, he argues.
“I want to help us number our days—to remember death—as a spiritual discipline,” he writes. “By avoiding the truth about death, we’re avoiding the truth about Jesus. Jesus didn’t promise us so many of the things we want most out of life. He promised us victory over death.”
ABOUT 2.7 MILLION AMERICANS DIE A YEAR. The National Academy of Sciences, in a book titled Approaching Death, notes that most Americans encounter death through media—seeing violent deaths—rather than through intimate experience, because families are mobile and disconnected. Many adults have never lived near or cared for anyone who is dying.
The New York City event set three goals for attendees: that they would be more comfortable talking about death, that they would move in closer to be with the sick and dying, and that they would talk to their doctors about their own end-of-life decisions (i.e., create an advanced directive).
The audiences skewed more to the baby boomer demographic, but millennials had a surprisingly strong turnout at events. About 7,000 people attended the festival in total. The clash of cultures and beliefs and demographics created moments of comedy, but also sparked deeper conversations.