A flurry of recent movies and shows focus on reaching an understanding with death before it's at the door.
Given its centrality to the human experience—it happens to everyone, no exceptions—you’d think our culture would engage the subject more. But it’s remained largely taboo.
Try to start a conversation about it, your friend or family member might accuse of you being “morbid.” Reveal that you’ve been thinking about it lately, your spouse might push you to see a counselor.
Death has been ever-present in television and movies, but mainly as a threat, something to be averted. When it comes, it arrives as a failure, a source of sadness and tragedy in the eyes of the plot line and audience.
So a television series focused on death? Not as a menace but as part of the human story that is shot through with meaning and beauty?
Surprising, but exactly that show debuted recently—Going Home, streaming on Pure Flix—and it’s far from the only cultural production engaging the end of life lately. TV, films, books, death doulas, death cafes—the culture seems to be building a healthier, more open-eyed relationship with dying, and it’s about damn time.
Dan Merchant, the creator of Going Home and a personal friend, says the idea for the series popped into his head one day and took on a life of its own. It’s intriguing that the series, despite its religious character and its location in the faith-and-family sector of the media ecosystem, zeroes in on the this-world, this-life aspects of dying.
“I suppose the pandemic and confronting death daily in the news jogged the whole topic loose in my psyche,” Merchant told me. “One minute the idea wasn’t there. The next, I was thinking about hospice nurses and how I’d witnessed their ‘superpower.’”
Their superpower, he explained, is their ability to be 100 percent present with death and those going through it, both the dying person and their loved ones. That hospice nurse superpower was something he had witnessed during his own parents’ deaths—“good deaths,” as he calls them.
“The idea grew from there, and next thing I know I’m pitching Sony. They responded immediately,” Merchant says. “Interestingly, most people I’ve interacted with—crew, cast, colleagues—began to share their own death stories. Turns out we all have them but rarely share them.”
The series, he continues, “seems to open up the flood gates with people. It turns out this is the most relatable show I’ve ever worked on. How did we go from ‘Ew, death, that’s not entertaining’ to ‘It’s an incredibly accessible and moving show’”?
COVID has to be part of the answer. “Pandemic narrows Americans’ cultural distance from death and dying,” announced a March 2020 headline from the National Catholic Reporter. That was only the beginning. By now, more than a million Americans have died from COVID—perhaps far more, given the vagaries of stats-collection. We are at the point where most of us either know someone killed by the virus or know someone who knows someone.
The dream to end all dreams
When better than now to rediscover what Columbia University medical ethicist Lydia Dugdale calls the “lost art of dying”? In an interview with Yale Divinity School (her alma mater, my employer) she elaborates on this lost art, the subject of her 2020 book of the same name:
It’s the idea that preparation for death occurs over the course of a lifetime. It’s never too early to start having these conversations in the context of family and community. What do we believe about living and dying? What happens when we die? What is life for? Figuring out what you believe about this existential stuff takes work.
It’s work we all must do, preferably in the company of those closest to us. Books, music, films, and television can help, offering people a vicarious experience through which they can work out their own understanding of death. It’s my sense that popular culture is doing more of that, and with a candor and sensitivity previously unseen.
Take This Is Us. The acclaimed NBC series closed its six-season run in May with a storyline focused on death—the death of the mother, Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore). It unfolds in a home hospice setting with her middle-aged children surrounding her, lovingly easing her exit. Then, the funeral. Sound depressing? It’s the opposite.
One of the most powerful takes on death and dying comes courtesy of the Netflix series Midnight Mass. There’s a scene in which the character Riley (Zach Gilford) answers a big question posed by his friend and confidant Erin (Kate Siegel): She asks, “What happens when you die?”
Riley’s answer is mind-blowing:
When I die… my body stops functioning. Shut down. All at once, or gradually, my breathing stops, my heart stops beating. Clinical death. And a bit later, like, five whole minutes later… my brain cells start dying. But in the meantime, in between… maybe my brain releases a flood of DMT. It’s the psychedelic drug released when we dream, so… I dream. I dream bigger than I have ever dreamed before, because it’s all of it. Just the last dump of DMT all at once. And my neurons are firing and I’m seeing this firework display of memories and imagination. And I am just… tripping. I mean, really tripping balls because my mind’s rifling through the memories. You know, long and short-term, and the dreams mix with the memories, and… it’s a curtain call. The dream to end all dreams. One last great dream as my mind empties the fuckin’ missile silos and then… I stop. My brain activity ceases and there is nothing left of me … I’m broken apart, and all the littlest pieces of me are just recycled, and I’m billions of other places. And my atoms are in plants and bugs and animals, and I’m like the stars that are in the sky. There one moment and then just scattered across the goddamn cosmos.
Modeling how to have a death conversation, Riley turns the question back to his friend. “Your turn,” he says. “What happens when you die?”
I hope more of us are having these conversations in real life. As Dugdale says, it’s crucial to reach an understanding with death before it’s at the door. We must also make things right with the people closest to us, finishing our unfinished business with them and saying what’s been left unsaid.
The series premiere of Going Home shows how it’s done.
An adult son (played by former pro footballer Vernon Davis) and his father (played by William Allen Young) arrive at the hospice center, the son dying of liver disease. The father is full of false bravado at first. He won’t abide any talk of death. His son is only there to regain his strength and will be going home in a few days, he assures the staff. Coached by head hospice nurse Charley (played by Cynthia Geary), he gradually faces up to what’s really going down and accepts the need to settle emotional affairs with his son before it’s too late. Both men unburden their souls, the son confessing he’s brought on his fatal liver disease through excessive use of painkillers and alcohol. They express their love as the curtain falls on the younger man’s life.
Not a happy ending in the Disney sense. But poignant for sure. Which is how death can be if approached with wisdom and love.
One of the biggest tragedies of COVID is how many have had to die horrible, lonely deaths. This was especially true in the pandemic’s earliest stages, when patients lay isolated in hospital beds as they took their final ragged breaths.
The victims of the recent mass shootings, many of them children, not only had their lives stolen but their opportunities for good deaths, too. No chance for final goodbyes and I-love-yous, for them or their families.
Interviewing hospice nurses, Merchant heard repeatedly that death is not the opposite of life but a part of life. But it’s unusual. It comes just once. Unlike most of what we do in life, there are no practice runs, no do-overs. Best to prepare and make the most of it.
Secular people might be put off by some of the turns these conversations can take. In Merchant’s show, some of the characters voice joyous expectations of heaven and look forward to reunions with lost loved ones. This will resonate with the religious folks in the audience. Me? I’m in the Riley of Midnight Mass camp, and to me it’s as good as heaven: The dream to end all dreams. My atoms returned to the cosmos.
Regardless of where we land on the what-happens-when-you-die question, the task is the same in this life. We must accept the inevitability of death and start to get ready. Preparing for it isn’t morbid. It’s wise. It not only makes your death better but the rest of your life, too.