This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
The pandemic has forced many of us to seriously confront our own mortality for the first time. Needless to say, we often feel ill-equipped to cope with these feelings, since modern society teaches us to fear death rather than embrace it as a natural part of existence.
Claudia Crobatia, 36, a self-proclaimed “deathfluencer” and death awareness coach, thinks there are healthier ways to look at the end of life. Through her website, Crobatia offers training on how to deal with grief and overcome anxieties about your own passing. She also reviews cemeteries in her native country of the Netherlands, and abroad.
I asked Crobatia to share six tips on how to change our negative associations with death, whether it be our own death or the death of loved ones.
Imagine your own death
“When you accept you’ll die one day, you can explore what that means to you. You can start thinking about your past experiences with death and your views on what happens at the end of life. This will make dying feel less abstract and terrifying.
“Pondering your own mortality is as ancient as humanity itself. The Latin proverb memento mori, or ‘remember that you die’, inspired generations of Roman philosophers and artists. But in modern Western society, we avoid thinking about our finite existence. Medical progress relieved us from the pressures of confronting death, and secularisation left us without meaningful mourning rituals – from accompanying a dying person through their journey, to taking care of their body after death. Even the rituals used by loved ones to express grief – for instance, wearing mourning clothes – are disappearing.
“The death awareness movement wants to change that. Being aware of your own mortality is the first step. The idea is to visualise the most optimal version of your own passing during a ‘death meditation’. You can find many versions of it online. In my course, I first ask you to imagine where you want to die. Are you at home or outside in a beautiful landscape? Is there someone with you, or are you alone? By visualising your last moments on Earth as peaceful, calm and serene, you can ease your fears little by little.”
Call the beast by its name
“When you or loved ones get sick and don’t have long to live, people usually avoid the topic of death and don’t acknowledge what’s actually happening. It’s understandable, but if you decide to accept reality and go through those difficult emotions, you can slowly transform them.
“When my father died in hospital at the age of 83, I sat with him, held his hand and told him he was venturing into a place of ultimate freedom. I said it was OK to let go and that I loved him so much. Acknowledging someone’s last moments and being a part of them is truly valuable for the dying person. It helps them let go of life more easily. It can even be a beautiful experience if you allow yourself to go through that pain.”
Make a death plan
“Talking about death with family and friends can bring you a lot of clarity and perspective, even if you’re healthy and have no reason to believe you’ll die soon. Who knows what quirky thoughts your parents have about the afterlife? Maybe your partner already knows what they’d want their funeral to be like.
“Take the time to draw up your own death plan. Just in case. Death is as personal as life itself. What songs would you want people to listen to? What would you like to wear? Do you want to be cremated or would you rather have an ‘eco-friendly’ funeral that allows your body to decompose?
“Write down everything that’s important to you and share it with a couple of loved ones. But first, explain to them why you’re doing this so they don’t get the wrong idea.”
Dissect your fears
“Accepting death is easier said than done. Try to figure out what exactly you’re afraid of. Is it the way you’re going to die? Are you afraid of your body rotting or that you’ll suffer? Or is it the fear of no longer existing and eventually being forgotten?
“Fear of death can be caused by trauma, like seeing a family member die, or, even worse, by catastrophic thinking. These thought patterns won’t help you because reality is often different from what you’ve predicted. You can’t change what will happen, you only have control over the present moment.”
Take a walk in a cemetery
“By exposing yourself to death, you automatically become more familiar with it. For example, you could take a walk in your nearest cemetery. Pro tip: do some research in advance about famous people buried there – their graves are usually very interesting. During a recent cemetery review in Gouda [a Dutch town famous for its cheese], I found the grave of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s secret daughter. It’s a sad story because the girl was born with hydrocephalus [excess fluid in the brain], so Neruda abandoned her and her mother.
“Cemeteries are the perfect place to examine your thoughts about death. If you want to go deeper, you can gain insight by reading books – like American thinker Ernest Becker’s work about death denial, or [American author] Paul Koudounaris’s writings mapping death cultures around the world.”
Acknowledge that eternal life would be boring
“Realising death is inevitable changes your outlook on life. I see beauty both in death and in the finite nature of our earthly existence. If you examine the concept of immortality – for example, in mythical creatures like vampires – you’ll notice they’re often said to experience a sense of meaninglessness.
“Because the average human life spans just 80 years [in the Netherlands], we are very conscious about what we want to do with our lives. As mortals, we celebrate life. We’re compelled not to wait too long to do the things we want to do. That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to embrace your mortality.”