“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in his book "My Struggle"
No topic is more defining — and more taboo to discuss — than death. It’s the one thing all of us will share.
Please share your stories with us, too. Just reply to this email, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios
Modern burials and death practices are changing how we die, and where we go when we die, Jessie Li writes.
It now ends with most of us getting turned into dust and posted online. Some new burial practices and places include:
Areas with high affiliation to Christianity as well as lower income and lesser educated populations tend to prefer traditional burials.
New preferences have rattled undertakers, who make significantly more money off burials than cremations and are now facing urn and casket competition from Amazon and Walmart, the Economist reports ($).
The bottom line: The popularity of traditional, more expensive embalming, caskets and funerals is dying along with the silent generation and baby boomers.
From "Alternate Endings": a woman places a flower into Barbara Jean's green burial grave. Photo: Courtesy of HBO
The filmmakers of "Alternate Endings" — a documentary on death and dying, premiering Wednesday on HBO — repeatedly hopped on planes over the past two years when they heard one of their subjects wasn't doing well.
Here's a bit of a long conversation I had with Perri Peltz and Matthew O'Neill, the producers and directors:
Your subjects were really talkative. Some of them were even funny.
Why do we have so much trouble talking about death?
When you screened a segment at the Aspen Ideas Festival, people cried.
How did making this documentary change you?
🎬 Watch a clip.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
An ongoing movement of “death cafes” — open salons for discussing death, with no set agenda — is spreading across America with the goal of ending the taboo around talking about dying, Jessie Li reports.
The big picture: The number of Americans 65 and older is on course to double from 46 million to over 98 million by 2060. Aided by a growing culture of sharing and openness in society, the future of these aging boomers is spurring conversations about aging and dying.
Between the lines: Step into a death cafe and the first thing you’ll notice is that it doesn’t necessarily look like a group of people conversing about the end of life.
Anyone can host a death cafe at a local coffee shop, library or public space. Anyone can show up. Anyone can contribute, or just listen.
At death cafes, topics can range from logistical to mystical: from writing your will to what happens to the soul after death.
Death cafes aren’t just for those who are aging or have terminal illnesses.
The bottom line: Today, death cafe organizers are seeing more momentum around talking about death.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Medical culture has often framed death as a binary decision: Preserve a patient's life at all costs, or give up and accept what happens.
Why it matters: The health care system isn't helping patients wrestle with these difficult questions, while advances in medicine are making them even harder to answer.
"I would like to believe that I will be very clear-eyed and rational, that I will know when it's time to stop treatment," Diane Meier, a leading expert on palliative care, said when asked how she would like to die. "But I am not so arrogant as to think that I might not choose [more treatment] out of fear."
Where it stands: Experts say we have designed a system that fails to support both the chronically ill who are the costliest to treat and those who are closer to death.
There's some cause for hope. The hospice and palliative care movement has expanded rapidly: 75% of all hospitals with at least 50 beds now have some kind of palliative care program.
The bottom line: "Is death a friend or an enemy, to be acquiesced to or to be fought? American medicine is simply not sure about the answer to that question," bioethicist Daniel Callahan wrote in 1995.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
Online platforms built for the living increasingly have to confront what to do when one of their users dies, leaving an account behind, David McCabe writes.
Several platforms encourage users to plan ahead for their own death, often by designating an individual to handle their account. Facebook users can also tell the service to delete their account when they die.
The big picture: Social networks have repeatedly grappled with how to handle this question, developing their policies over the years — and facing criticism along the way.
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg announced earlier this year that the site was now “only allowing friends and family members to request to have an account memorialized.”