By Chris Haring

Cultural norms and new technologies are changing our relationship with death, from innovative funeral practices to a newfound focus on aesthetics.

Perhaps accelerated by the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020, recent years have brought significant changes to how we perceive and handle death. This shift reflects our growing comfort with discussing death, evolving funeral practices, and even emphasizing autonomy in death aesthetics.

Openness to new ideas and traditions is critical to embracing death

In a recent article for the New York Post titled How funerals and death became the new hot things, Alix Strauss delves into the changing perceptions surrounding death and highlights several emerging trends.

Manhattan’s Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home exemplifies this shift by hosting unconventional events such as bingo games, comedy shows, and winter concerts. “People want to remember their loved ones in a way that is celebratory and meaningful,” says David Glickman, a funeral director at the home. “We’re seeing a rise in personalized services that truly reflect the life and personality of the deceased.”

Other developments include celebrities partnering with companies to create unique funeral experiences, obituary-writing classes to help people craft meaningful tributes, and even “graveyard recipes” shared by users on social media platforms like TikTok, combining culinary creativity with memorial practices.

Additionally, apps like WeCroak, which sends daily reminders of mortality, and services like Be Ceremonial help plan personalized ceremonies. These tools encourage individuals to confront and embrace their mortality, fostering a culture that is more open and comfortable discussing the end of life.

Innovations in funeral practices reflect changing attitudes

Erica Fresh’s experience, shared in Lauren Peace’s June story for the Tampa Bay Times titled Cremation, green burials and celebrations of life: How Florida’s funeral norms are changing, highlights the rising popularity of cremations and green burials.

Fresh was 18 when she first attended a funeral with an open casket. “I had these horrible nightmares that night,” she said two decades later. “I thought to myself, ‘Nope, that is not what I want to happen to me.'” This experience led her to prefer cremation, reflecting a broader trend where traditional burials have dropped from almost 80% to fewer than 40% of all end-of-life arrangements over the past 30 years.

Cremation also offers flexibility for those who want memorialization in a cemetery. JoAnn DeFrancesco, a 62-year-old Palm Harbor resident, plans to be cremated and then buried in New York with her father. “Shipping my body there would be astronomically expensive, so being cremated and then taken there is a lot easier,” she explained. In urban areas where land is limited, cremation helps extend the life of cemeteries by offering options to entomb ashes or scatter them at designated sites.

Personal stories underscore the crossroads of aesthetics and autonomy in death

Autonomy in death extends beyond just the choice of ceremony. Sabina Wex’s recent Glamour article, The Aesthetics of Dying, explores how individuals can have a say in their appearance at death.

Wex highlights the story of Edvige Santangelo, a patient who chose to wear her favorite outfit and have her hair styled a particular way when choosing medical aid in dying. “There were no acceptable treatment options for her,” her daughter said. “There was not one that was able to alleviate her pain and at the same time allow her to live with dignity.” Her choice of clothing and hairstyle was a final assertion of her identity and dignity in the face of terminal illness.

Joél Simone Maldonado, a funeral director with a background in cosmetology and barbering, emphasizes the importance of looking recognizable to provide comfort to grieving families: “When someone doesn’t look recognizable, even though we’ve done the best that we can, it is traumatic for the family. You have a bit of autonomy in that. So why not take advantage of it?”

Shifting cultural attitudes signal a growing acceptance of end-of-life experiences

The changing culture of death reflects a broader societal shift towards acceptance and personalization in end-of-life experiences. By embracing new practices and technologies and focusing on autonomy, we are transforming how we approach death, making it a more integral and less taboo part of life.

This evolution is helping to create a death culture that respects individual values and preferences, ultimately fostering a more compassionate and understanding society. This aligns with the aid-in-dying movement, reflecting a desire for individuals to have control and dignity at the end of life. For more information about how death has become a cultural focus, particularly in media, read our blog post here.