Will COVID-19 Change the Way We Think About Death?

Let’s be honest: most people don’t like to talk about death.

Death is the ultimate elephant-in-the-room: it’s a natural part of the lifecycle that we will all experience sooner or later, just as we all experience birth. While cultural attitudes towards death differ across the globe, in the Western world we have a tendency to view death – the antithesis of life – as something “dark” or “bad.” Death is sad, of course, and frightening (it is, as Shakespeare penned in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns“) but not “bad” – and our hesitency to talk about it is dangerous. It is, I believe, a part of the reason why the coronavirus pandemic has struck the US so hard on both a social and psychological level; as individuals, we are frequently unprepared to address death as it happens in our personal lives (according to Reuters Health, only 37% of American adults have an advanced directive detailing their wishes for end-of-life care should they become terminally ill or unable to make medical decisions for themselves) so it should really come as no surprise that our national response to the pandemic was woefully inadequate. And now, our most vulnerable communities are paying the price.

It’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 will change everything about our world, from the way we do business to the way labor is divided in the household – for both good and bad. It has the potential to reshape the way that we think about death and dying, as well. That change is a long time coming, and it’s happening now: we’re seeing the consequences of what can happen when you don’t have a death care or disaster preparedness plan in real-time. We can no longer ignore the structural inequalities in our society that are contributing to the deaths of poor people and people of color on a mass scale. We’re being forced to rethink our cultural perception of the elderly, disabled, and incarcerated populations as “expendable”, or that succumbing to illness is some sort of weakness or moral failing.

I believe that as deadly and devastating as the coronavirus is, it also has the potential to be a great teacher. And one of the lessons it’s here to teach us is that our cultural attitude towards death is not a healthy one: denying death only causes more deaths. Deaths that could be avoided with proper planning and respect for the dignity of all individuals. Perhaps when the next pandemic rolls around, we’ll have learned enough from this unfortunate episode that we’ll be prepared to face it head-on. Because when we look at death in the eye, it gives us the strength to affirm and embrace life.

As the saying goes: whether you be a king or a humble street sweeper, in the end we all must dance with the Reaper. [Cue.]

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