SXSW and the Matter of Life and Death

'Death acceptance is an acceptance of reality'

SXSW and the Matter of Life and Death
Photo by Sandy Carson

Caitlin Doughty, a mortician from L.A., and Chanel Reynolds, a Seattle tech project manager and founder of, together presented a solid case for facing the reality that is death.

Doughty – founder of Order of the Good Death, a group of death professionals, academics, and artists working to engage people with their mortality – described her work as “death positivity.” “Death acceptance is an acceptance of reality,” said Doughty. “You could die at anytime. Self-awareness comes from knowing how death shapes your life.” 

Rather than teach children that death is wrong, as the life-extension movement people do, Doughty argues we should face the reality of the medical system, which is that there is a dark side to keeping people alive for long periods of time. In describing the intersections of death and tech, Doughty used the metaphor of ice cream and mushrooms; on the surface it may not seem to be an appealing combination, but those are actually two examples of how people are using tech to mediate death. For example, artist Jae Rhim Lee has developed a burial suit embroidered with mushroom-spore-infused thread. Another process in development, promession, is the freeze-drying of corpses and is generally accepted to be an eco-friendly alternative to cremation. Both of these projects mix high-level technology with a green, fully integrated acceptance of death. 

Doughty wrapped up her portion of the panel describing the Indonesian ritual called Ma’nene, in which people retrieve the bodies of their dead loved ones once every three years, dress the desiccated corpses in flashy new clothes, then parade them around town and show them the new things, like new babies and crops. “We might find this gross,” said Doughty, “but what’s important is that they have a ritual, which is something we’ve failed at in the United States. We fail at both logistical and ritual structure when someone dies.”

As such, she suggests we should re-embrace old traditions, like home death care in which the family cares for the deceased, cleaning and staging the corpse at home. It can be a transformative experience, Doughty argues, to care for a body at the end of life. Other alternatives include witnessed cremation, where families can be as involved as they want to be, even so far as pushing the button to start the cremation process. With green burials, families can lower the shrouded body of their deceased into the ground, managing the entire process themselves. In describing the process of green burial, Doughty said, “Your atoms are going back into the universe. The things that you borrowed to be you are being put back and reused.” 

Reynolds’ portion of the presentation was more pragmatic. When her husband died in a bicycle accident in 2009, she spent years trying to piece together the family’s affairs in the aftermath. She couldn’t even get into her husband’s phone to call his father to break the news, much less figure out where to start in terms of managing his estate, figuring out insurance concerns, and so on. In response to her experience, Reynolds founded Get Your Shit Together, a life- and estate-planning website. “We can die a lot better,” she said. “We can optimize death for much higher reward for very little effort.”

Reynolds argued that estate planning, money management, and living wills are essential to have and are extremely easy to put together (especially with her website serving as a clearinghouse for those planning-related tools). “We take the time to protect all our things, like using passcodes on our phones, but we don’t take the time to do things like write down those passcodes,” she said. The first step, she said, is a will. In most states, you don’t need to have your will notarized; it’s as easy as writing down your wishes and having a couple of people witness you doing it. 

“We have the ability to customize everything,” said Reynolds. You can customize your own life planning.

Death 2.0: How to Die on the Digital Frontier

Saturday, March 8, Radisson Town Lake

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South by Southwest, SXSW, SXSW 2014, SXSW Interactive 2014, Caitlin Doughty, Chanel Reynolds, death, burial, cremation, green burial, Infinity Burial Project, Get Your Shit Together

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