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How One Woman Took a Taboo Topic - Death - and Made it OK to Talk About It

talking about death

Photo Credit: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

Every month, Gail Rubin pulls up to her computer’s webcam, launches a Zoom conference and takes a dozen or two guests on a journey into a deeply personal topic everyone shares in common but few candidly discuss: mortality.

Participants, most of whom are in New Mexico — where Rubin lives — are given an open mic to talk about anything and everything they’d like to on the topic of death. Experiences with loved ones dying, fears of their own eventual end of life, desires for funerals, and spiritual and religious beliefs on what comes after death all  make the cut.

If guests are shy, Rubin peppers them with prompts: “How would you complete the statement, ‘Death is [blank]?’” “What factors in your life lead you to feel about death the way that you do?” She asks them to share how they would finish the phrase, “Before I die I want to…”

As the saying goes, there are two things that are guaranteed in this life: death and taxes. But for many Americans — death is a topic that’s little explored.

For nearly two decades, Rubin, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., has long called herself the “Doyenne of Death.” The Zoom conversations she has hosted over the years are dubbed Death Cafes — they’re part of a global movement around such meet-ups — and used to be held at coffee shops and restaurants until the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond that, Rubin is also a funeral planner, author, podcast host and the organizer of one of many Before I Die festivals that now take place each year in the U.S. Her chapter of the festival, which is intended to get people talking about the end of life before it’s too late, is now in its fifth year.

She sums up her work and ethos with a simple mantra: “Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant. Talking about funerals and end-of-life issues won’t make you dead.”

As the saying goes, there are two things that are guaranteed in this life: death and taxes. But for many Americans — death is a topic that’s little explored. Many Americans have not thought much about the end of life. A survey from the Pew Research Center found that 37% of Americans had given “a great deal” of thought to the medical treatment they’d want to receive as they were dying. A third had put those desires into writing. Yet, in the same survey, a quarter had done little to no thinking or planning about death.

Rubin is part of a small but growing movement of people who are attempting to change that.

These activists and organizers have a variety of backgrounds — from medicine to ministry — and methods. Death Cafes, which originated in Switzerland and the U.K. in the early 2000s, are among the most popular segments of the movement around death, dying, grief and the end of life in the U.S., with hundreds hosted in every state in the last few years alone. The Before I Die Festival, which combines funeral and estate planning with cemetery tours, yoga, meditation and art, has taken place in several U.S. states in addition to New Mexico, including Indiana and Kentucky. Another event is Death Over Dinner, a series of coordinated meals where friends and strangers connect to talk about life and death. Conferences, such as that for the Association for Death Education and Counseling — have also grown.

For Rubin, the move into this unique space was more happenstance than planned.

COVID-19 has made people a little more comfortable to talk about mortality because we just saw death all around us,

For her wedding in 2000, she organized a creative Jewish-Western theme, which led her to write a book on life-cycle events that played off the endeavor: Matching, Hatchings and Dispatching — on marriage, birth and death. That, in turn, was a path to her own Albuquerque Tribune column on the same topic. Her stories on death and funerals were the most popular.

She noticed that books on wedding planning were plentiful, yet those on funeral planning were hard to come by. So she wrote A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan To Die (she later created a podcast by the same name). She then authored Kicking the Bucket List: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die. Along the way, she studied to be certified as a thanatologist — someone who studies death — by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Rubin also became the president of the Historic Fairview Cemetery Association, the nonprofit that manages a famed resting place where the 12,000 buried include some of Albuquerque's founding families.

In the last year-and-a-half that has been marked by millions of deaths and global mourning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Rubin says she’s noticed an even greater awareness and openness to considering one’s feelings and questions around the end of life.

“COVID-19 has made people a little more comfortable to talk about mortality because we just saw death all around us,” she says. “So many people had to deal with sudden, unexpected funerals or deaths where you couldn’t have one because of limitations in place.”

Rubin see’s her life’s purpose as “bringing light to a dark subject. (Death is) going to happen to all of us. So there’s no need to pretend it’s not going to.”

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