A citywide reckoning with death in New York shows Americans may be ready to talk about a topic they once sought to avoid
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In a high-end co-working space in Manhattan’s NoMad, where trendy crystals decked out a candlelit bar, a group lounged on pillows scattered on the floor for an open mic to talk about death.
“I am going to die,” the room of mostly millennials said in unison at the beginning of the event.
A man in his 30s talked about losing three young friends to cancer in recent months. One woman worked for a suicide prevention line. A musician, Chelsea Coleman, sang about her sister, who was homeless and has been missing for many years. “Why does everyone have to die? Why does everything have to end?” Coleman asked the room. Her dad was sitting in the back, nodding along.
Alanna McLeod got up to speak about losing her mom right after she graduated from college, and losing her dad right before she got married. Herself an only child, she said, “My family went extinct.”
One man talked about visiting a medium to contact his lover who had died. Another woman talked about caring for her mother with dementia, and how much she hated it. A young reporter for the New York Post, Ruth Weissmann, talked about her first assignment as a reporter a year ago, when she went to a scene where a woman was standing on the edge of the 18th floor of a building.
Weissmann remembered the woman wearing a straw hat. As a police officer tried to get close to save her, the woman stepped backward off the ledge, “like stepping into a pool.” Weissmann had to write about the aftermath. Since then she’s covered stabbings, fires, and more suicides.
“I’ve seen a lot of death,” said Weissmann. “I came tonight because I’m afraid I won’t feel it when something happens to me or someone I love.”
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.
Reimagine End of Life started just two years ago in San Francisco, the nonprofit child of Silicon Valley company IDEO. Reimagine’s youthful founder and executive director Brad Wolfe is the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor, and he grew up hearing stories about death.
Wolfe was so frightened and fascinated by death that when he would go to bed as a boy, he would ask his parents to bang pans down the hall so he knew they were alive. He started off the opening night of the festival saying that he does not think death is a good thing. I asked him about that later, and he referenced the “death positive” movement (a word play on the “sex positive” movement). “I don’t get that,” he said.
Jeannie Blaustein, a New York psychologist who has worked in hospice care and presided over a synagogue, met Wolfe recently and asked him how she could bring the Reimagine event to New York. Now she is Reimagine’s board chair.
The Jewish leadership of the festival meant that many of the events took place in Jewish contexts, though Blaustein when I talked to her emphasized her openness to Christian participation. She had just come from an event with a Baptist preacher the night before.
Union Theological Seminary hosted several events, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church opened its event space for a talk with a hospice worker. Most of those in ministry whom I talked to in New York didn’t know the festival was happening.
Anyone could apply to host an event on the topic, subject to Reimagine’s approval. At each event the host would read a mission statement from Reimagine that boiled down to the question, Why are we here?
An obituary writer talked about her work, and a synagogue hosted a Shabbat dinner to discuss Jewish rituals surrounding death. There were events on dying in the Asian, African-American, and Haitian communities. At another gathering, six speakers from different generations talked about death.
A tattoo parlor had an event about remembering people on your body, and a Midtown art gallery hosted an exhibit made of clothes that people wore to a loved one’s funeral that they couldn’t bring themselves to throw away, but also couldn’t wear again.
A stand-up comic, Chris Garcia, performed and talked about his dad dying last year after living with Alzheimer’s for 10 years. “It’s brutal,” he said of Alzheimer’s, recalling that his strong, Cuban immigrant father was reduced to having his son change his diaper. Garcia shared a list of rules for after your dad dies. Rule No. 1: “No Pixar for two years.” People in the audience laughed and shouted back knowingly, “Yes!”
There were workshops for parents with seriously ill children, for those coping after a suicide, for those with illnesses, for employers dealing with grieving employees. An artist did 100 portraits of residents at the Hebrew Home. A walking tour chronicled death in Colonial America.
A funeral home director did a workshop on writing condolence letters, nursing homes did workshops on advanced directives, and a 30-year-old with ovarian cancer spoke about her brush with death. A songwriter who lost his young son set up a phone booth where people could enter and talk into the phone, and whatever they said would be beamed out on a satellite.
The festival took place right after the Tree of Life attack that left 11 dead in Pittsburgh, and in a city with a large Jewish population, the attack was on the mind of many. A Jewish funeral chapel on the Upper West Side hosted a comedy show as part of the festival. The improv group, Chicago City Limits, delayed the show because a nearby synagogue was hosting a vigil for the victims of the attack at the same time.
One of the members of the improv group, Paul Zuckerman, was waiting for people to return from the vigil and noted that the night was “way over-poignant for a comedy show.” Looking across the empty chapel room, Zuckerman recalled that he had been to many funerals there. But when he saw the chapel as a potential venue, he thought, “Good sight lines!”
“People need relief, a release,” said Linda Gelman, one of the other members of the improv group. “It’s been a whole week of bad news.”
When the show began, the comedians acknowledged the awkwardness and painfulness of the situation. Zuckerman asked how many had been in the funeral chapel before—about a third of the audience raised their hands. But people were soon laughing.
The group did a variety of sketches: a fake eulogy for an aunt where the audience filled in the blanks; then dead “celebrity Jeopardy” with the audience-generated categories of gefilte fish, funerals, and Jell-O. Later, the group tossed a question to the audience: Has anyone had a near-death experience? A millennial named Gia raised her hand.
“In bed, I felt my soul lift out of my body,” she said. She elaborated that she felt her soul hit the ceiling and that she was able to look down at her body. But then her soul returned to her body. The room shifted uneasily, not knowing whether to laugh or not.
One of the comics asked more questions about the story, then they introduced their show: “Gia Hits the Ceiling: The Broadway Musical,” an array of made-up songs enacting her story backed up by an improvising pianist. At the end, as the audience was recovering from laughing, one of the comics asked Gia whether the musical was fairly representative.
“That was so accurate it was terrifying,” said Gia, laughing herself.
DOWNTOWN ON A WINDY FRIDAY AFTERNOON, a crowd gathered at the 9/11 Memorial to build a large “earth art” memorial out of bits of nature that had fallen to the ground, led by earth artist Day Schildkret.
Schildkret tried to raise his voice over the roaring water cascading down in the footprints of the twin towers, explaining that the art-building crowd would be turning a place of loss into beauty. Adding that the ritual would help “align ourselves with earth’s harmonic movement,” he sent the gathered crowd, which included some curious onlookers from the busy memorial, off to forage for leaves and twigs to create overlapping circles on the ground. Schildkret hoisted a basket of acorns to distribute in circles and ripped petals off roses to scatter in patterns.
Lorenzo Gallo, a 9/11 first responder who has been fighting what was supposed to be terminal cancer for the last decade, came to the memorial-building after he heard about it from his tattoo artist. He has been progressively getting a large dragon tattooed across his shoulder and chest, but had to do it in small batches because of his cancer treatment. He proudly lifted his shirt to show the completed dragon—he had just found out the night before that he was cancer free.
“It’s the first time I’m here celebrating,” Gallo said. He built a circle with flowers and leaves and twigs to represent the number of people who had died on the spot in the attacks. Building a circle of leaves and petals next to Gallo was a young woman, Camille Boxhill, who came to the event on her lunch break from her office nearby. Her brother died when he was 20; his death is always on her mind, and she wanted to do something tangibly about her grief.
Blaustein was standing nearby, looking at the haphazard circles of twigs and leaves and flowers forming a memorial.
“[Death] is really hard to talk about, but it’s on people’s minds all the time,” she said. “People say it’s taboo. Three hundred events says to me that there’s a hunger.”
—with reporting from Princess Jones
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