Let's Reinvent How We Talk About Death
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone dies.
By Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times and Pacific Standard. She is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods. Find her on Twitter here.
Americans don’t do death very well. We hesitate even to invoke the word, especially around children. I include myself in “we”: Some months ago I struggled to tell my 4-year-old that his uncle, my brother-in-law, had died. In the end I resorted to simplicity and straightforwardness. My son asked a few questions, then surprised me with his perceptive, forward-looking response: He said it was now his job to be his grandfather’s helper.
My anxiety, and my son’s calm, made me think about how we could make a conversation about death and dying, the most foreign things of all, into something more familiar. By no means am I the only person thinking along these lines. Paul Bennett, the chief creative officer of global design firm IDEO, has lately been trying to redesign our experience of death — from hospice care and funeral homes to government policy and social dialogues — and to reintegrate it into our experience of life. The question for him, he told me, is: “How can we start unlocking different stories about death in the world?”
One of his answers is, basically, an Everyone Poops of death. Yes, the beloved children’s book, first published in Japanese in 1977 and since widely translated, could be a model for normalizing death. And why not? It brilliantly evokes the what-goes-in-must-come-out universality of how living bodies work, through pictures of animals and people of all ages. Something of the sort for death, says Bennett, could nudge a new generation to speak early about what has become effectively taboo.
To be sure, there are already plenty of children’s books about death, but not everyone reads them, and there isn’t one that everyone reads as a matter of course. Not only is death a difficult subject for kids’ books in general, but, as early childhood educator Amy Rothschild points out, “Children’s and young adult literature (“kid lit”) represent a stubbornly white world even as U.S. children are increasingly people of color.”
In America, our pedigree is multiculturalism. We love to celebrate it; in doing so, we make the foreign familiar, through the shared experience of rituals around food, holidays and all the stuff of life. Why not death? Put another way: Our multicultural celebration shouldn’t just focus on cuisine and festivities, but also on our rich, collective storehouse of traditions around death.
What might this multicultural book of the dead look like? We could take a page from last year’s The Book of Life, the glorious Día de los Muertos-inspired animated movie by writer-director Jorge Gutiérrez. He told NPR that Hollywood originally thought his idea was too dark: “Here was this Mexican kid saying, ‘Hey, it’s a movie about death — for children!’ And so I kind of scared everybody.” But in Mexican culture, said the actor and filmmaker Benicio del Toro, who produced the film, “we’re genetically engineered to not have the contemplation of death as a tragic end but a continuation — as a companion of life.”
We’re all different, but the panorama of those differences taken together speaks to our collective humanity. I think of New Orleans jazz funerals and second-line parades, when the community’s brass band ushers out the dead with music and cathartic dance, and of American Indian tribal traditions that treat a newborn as a returning dead ancestor, calling the baby “grandfather” or “auntie” to reflect that profound sense of familial continuity. There is room for sadness and grief, but there’s also room for something more connected to the person who lived, and a public expression that allows that remembering to happen.
Death is an existential terror; nothing will change that. And when children get it — that death is this irreversible state — they often experience the same existential crisis we have as adults, explains Alison Gopnik, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime researcher into the cognitive development of children. But she adds that people have long had rituals and institutions to deal with those transitions, and for early-school-age kids, talking about them is beneficial.
When I was 5, we went to visit my great-grandfather’s grave in Brooklyn during the spring Qingming festival, when Taoists honor their dead with ancestral grave sweeping. In keeping with custom, we burned incense and joss-paper ingots so my bok-gung could have ghost money to spend in heaven.
But because no one ever explained what the worship meant — indeed, what death was — what defined the experience for me was not the story of what we were doing and why we were doing it. It was fear. Fear of the quiet solemnity on my family’s faces; fear of the dark, inexplicable unknown. From a young age, that deep anxiety over dying is what has stuck with me, even now, to the point where I hesitated to say the word around my son. What could have been different had the stories been told, openly?
One book doesn’t solve the problem of how we avoid talking about things we’re afraid of — you’d need a whole library for that. But at least, with this one, we’d be talking about the end from the beginning.
- Bonnie Tsui, OZY Author Contact Bonnie Tsui